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The Bridge: Choose Your Battles

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Choose your battles

Last week, marking the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Senate voted 66-30 to repeal two longstanding war authorizations (called AUMFs Authorizations for Use of Military Force): the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs that authorized the Gulf War and the Iraq War against Saddam Hussein’s regime, respectively. The repeals are significant and historic, but, frankly, long past due. Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown in 2003, and the conflict with Iraq was formally declared to be over in 2011. Iraq is now considered a strategic partner to the United States.

The end of the Iraq War should’ve been the last we heard of the 2002 AUMF. But that wasn’t the case. The authorization was invoked by both the Obama administration and the Trump administration to justify operations against Syria and Iran  — a long way off from where the dust had settled in Iraq. That makes a repeal of the 2002 AUMF particularly significant.

Let’s look into why our declarations of war are outliving their conflicts in the first place, and what Congress can do to change that.

In this edition:

  • Who calls the shots?
  • Blank checks and forever wars
  • Every beginning must have an end
  • But repealing isn’t the only goal, either

Congress dragging its feet on closing out AUMFs is more than a matter of poor housekeeping: The shunned responsibility has left war powers in an imbalance and the military vulnerable to executive-branch abuse. To understand this complicated issue, I talked to Bridge regular, POGO Senior Defense Policy Fellow Dan Grazier. He’s written a lot about war powers over the years, so I asked him to walk me through AUMFs.

But first, some context.

According to the Constitution, the authority to start and end wars restssolely with Congress, not with the president. Congress is required to sign off on any conflict that requires the use of military force. These formal signoffs are called Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs). In most cases, AUMFs are requested explicitly by the president, then approved by Congress.

There are no set directives for how an AUMF is framed. You can note for yourself the differences in how the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs are phrased. Sometimes AUMFs are explicit about regions of effect and timelines, but more often than not they are indefinite and broad to accommodate for the intrinsic uncertainty of conflict.

Too much wiggle room But that open-endedness leaves AUMFs vulnerable to abuse. Over the years, we’ve seen the executive branch treat AUMFs like blank checks, reinterpreting them to suit their goals.

Testimony: When it Comes to War, “The Blank Check Just Got Bigger”

“The president could cite an open AUMF as justification for a related mission without getting further congressional approval. And that’s a big problem,” Dan explained. “It enables the executive branch with unilateral authority to deploy American troops overseas without getting that approval from Congress and the Constitution.” In other words, these overly broad and indefinite AUMFs give presidents open-ended power to use the military however they please.

And this isn’t conjecture. The 2002 AUMF was reinterpreted long after conflict with Iraq ended to justify military operations against ISIS and the assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani.

But even more extreme is the abuse of perhaps the most infamous war authorization: the 2001 AUMF that marked the start of the War on Terror.

An endless war

The wording of the 2001 AUMF is broad. In one fell swoop, it authorizes the use of force against terrorism against the United States. Since its enactment, the 2001 AUMF has been used by three different presidents to justify at least 37 military operations in 19 countriesincluding Djibouti, Yemen, the Philippines, Kenya, Eritrea, and Niger — costing trillions in taxpayer dollars and resulting in significant losses of life.

Of the recent AUMFs, most can agree that the 2001 AUMF has had the most widespread and dangerous consequences. But late last month, despite the momentum for repealing authorizations, the Senate voted 86-9 to keep the 2001 authorization in place. Repealing the 2001 AUMF would be far more complex and politically divisive than repealing the 1991 or 2002 AUMFs. Few seem ready to take up that banner. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who’s been pushing for a 2001 AUMF repeal, said that his fellow senators are “missing the point” by repealing the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs but keeping the 2001 AUMF in place. In an op-ed on the subject, he wrote, “I asked my fellow committee members: … Don’t you think Congress should have a debate over the question where and when we go to war?”

While discussing this topic with me, Dan commented, “In every practical sense, the 2001 AUMF is much more problematic than the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs. And the completely ridiculous part is that most of the people who serve in Congress now didn’t even vote for it.

Read Now: It’s Time for a New War Vote

Past its prime

Beyond being used to justify conflicts outside their original purpose, long-standing AUMFs have been open for so long, they’re outliving Congresses. Dan has been tracking the members of Congress still serving who were involved in the original conversations around the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, and that number is now very small. “It’s gotten to the point where more senators who voted to authorize those AUMFs have died than are still serving today,” he told me.

Congress Dodges its War Power Responsibilities, Again

I asked Dan why Congress was so lackadaisical about the executive branch infringing on its war powers. Why did it seem like they were rubber-stamping this AUMF abuse? Dan cited this lack of involvement and ownership as the likely reason. He said, “The current members of Congress don’t have to take responsibility. To them, this is just the situation that existed when they came into office.”

It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish

The repeal of the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs was a matter of good timing. Over the years, different Congresses have made the effort to reclaim their war powers, but partisan politics and competing executive branch political priorities made it difficult for the stars to align.

Now that the stars are aligned, it’s important that Congress channel that momentum into reform. Repeals do save lives, but they do little to address the imbalance of powers that’ve made it difficult for Congress to end the wars they start. Reforms could include sunset provisions that provide a firm end date to any war authorization, or a requirement that current Congresses vote on past AUMFs to ensure that members feel responsibility for the wars that are being waged. 

Congress was entrusted with the sole power to start and end wars for a reason. When the lives of our troops and relationships with foreign nations are on the line, decisions should be debated and given careful consideration — they certainly shouldn’t be left to the whims of the person who holds the presidency. It’s imperative that Congress reclaim its war powers.

It’s crucial to note that the effort to repeal these long-standing AUMFs has been led by Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA). She has been at the forefront of this cause since the very start, when she was the lone vote in Congress against the 2001 AUMF. Read a brilliant op-ed she wrote on Congress’s war powers here.