In a late-June session of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) successfully added an amendment to a Defense Appropriations Bill that would repeal the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).
[Update, 7/19: Rep. Lee Tweeted Wednesday morning that Speaker Ryan had essentially stripped her AUMF amendment from the final defense bill “in the dead of the night” Tuesday.]
The passage of this amendment sent a positive signal that America’s war-making capabilities will finally be the subject of a debate, at least on the House floor. On July 12, Lee even met with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, it appears that Lee’s amendment is being threatened by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has offered up a replacement bill that, instead of repealing the 2001 AUMF, would ask Congress to clarify war powers and goals.
Unsurprisingly, Lee is not satisfied with that slight improvement. Lee has objected to its powers since 2001, when the AUMF was first passed four days after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The original vote gave the president wide latitude to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” that he determined were responsible for 9/11. It passed with remarkable speed, and there were no committee hearings. Lee was the only member of either chamber of Congress to vote against the bill.
Sixteen years of interventionist foreign-policy decisions have stretched this authorization to encompass any and all uses of military force broadly connected to the War on Terror, including actions against “associated groups” related to the 9/11 terrorists. The AUMF was used to justify the invasion of Iraq (though that invasion received its own resolution), even though there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda or 9/11. Every one of the recent drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia was “authorized” by the legislation. The AUMF is the backbone of U.S. actions in Syria against the Islamic State (beyond, that is, the evergreen assertions of executive power). Special Operations forces have entered 70 percent of the world’s countries so far this year. As investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill noted in the subtitle of his best-selling book Dirty Wars, the world is indeed a battlefield, and the 2001 AUMF gets a lot of the credit for that making that a reality.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (and their legal teams) have interpreted the AUMF as broadly as possible. Obama, always playing the magnanimous leader, asked Congress for new powers to fight ISIS in 2014. However, he was already using the AUMF and the War Powers Resolution to justify the interventions the U.S. had already begun. His new powers, then, would merely have been stacked upon the old. Congress was too lackluster to actually force a war vote, anyway, so the issue remained as theoretical as every executive violation of the War Powers Resolution.
And even some experts are willing to let that slog continue. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis emphasized this attitude in recent comments to NATO, saying “I don’t put timelines on wars. It’s that simple…You can’t say, ‘Well, I got tired of it, so I’m going to come home’ and then wonder why you get hit again.” But as Micah Zenko and Amelia Wolf, senior fellow and research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argue, the idea that terrorist safe havens—which can only be crushed militarily—lead to successful attacks is an exaggeration repeated by the last several presidential administrations. War drums are easy to beat. Cleaning up your intelligence community after it missed 20 chances to stop the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, is a lot more difficult. And the erroneous idea that the U.S. is actually able to wipe every single terrorist enclave from the earth is the best excuse for a series of wars that, by definition, never end.
The AUMF needs to be replaced by legislation that is much narrower and more focused in its scope, while reasserting Congress’s role in war-making. Yet who in government could be depended upon to write and enforce such a constrained set of guidelines? Whatever AUMF replaces the current one, a determined president and an obsequious Congress can always find a way to get to war, and to stay there, if they wish.
Though repealing the AUMF wouldn’t solve all of America’s foreign policy problems, we may not even get far enough for a debate. The Republican Party still has a sizable majority in the House—and the measure would need 48 Republican representatives (to say nothing of Democrats from conservative districts) to go against their party and the White House in order to move a bill on to the Senate. Ryan and Cole’s compromise bill might get somewhere, but Lee’s attempt to sweep the whole AUMF into the trash is not likely to make it very far.
It is a positive sign, though, that the political winds are at last shifting in a direction where we can begin to seriously question how we approach the use of military force. The Afghanistan War had an unfavorable rating of 78 percent in 2016. An American soldier killed there on July 3 was 19 years old—meaning he wasn’t old enough for kindergarten when the war began. We shouldn’t wait for another generation to deploy to a foreign desert before we begin asking when enough is enough.
Jerrod A. Laber is a non-profit program director living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @jerrodlaber. Lucy Steigerwald is a journalist and an editor at Young Voices. Follower her on Twitter: @lucystag