Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The All-Purpose Authorization of Military Force

Fifteen years later, it’s time for Congress to do its job.

On September 11, Americans woke up to commemorate a solemn occasion: the 15-year anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Here in New York City, people were lined up along the bridges and the parks to see where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Two giant blue lights bolted into the sky in remembrance of the victims. Politicians across the spectrum—from Rudy Giuliani to Bill de Blasio, from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump—participated in the grief-stricken ceremony.

Like many Americans, I still remember where I was when the second plane crashed into the second tower. As a young middle schooler in history class, I had no understanding of what was going on.

9/11 isn’t the only anniversary that Americans marked this month, however. On September 18, 2001, President George W. Bush signed the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda and the Taliban into law.  

At the time, a week after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed and the entire country was paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, the 2001 AUMF was an act of unity and purpose from America’s elected representatives. The resolution authorized the president to use military force against an enemy that few Americans had heard of a week before, and it passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress, with only one dissenting vote.

Unlike past war resolutions, which were normally marked up in committee and then debated on the House and Senate floors, the 2001 AUMF was introduced, voted on, and passed by Congress on the same exact day. The speed with which lawmakers got the resolution to President Bush’s desk exemplified the seriousness and determination of the legislative branch to do its part in this new armed conflict. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution bestows upon members of Congress the power to declare war or approve the president’s use of the U.S. military overseas, and Congress at that time delivered in resounding fashion.

However, the 60-word measure has transformed into something else entirely. It was crafted to provide President Bush the authority to wage war on the group that attacked America and the Taliban regime that harbored it. Fifteen years later, the executive branch has used the AUMF as statutory authority to wage war on terrorist groups that didn’t even exist in 2001. It has become a catch-all for practically everything that the United States does in the war on terrorism.

This, of course, isn’t a new argument. Constitutional scholars from the left and the right have long recognized that the AUMF has been stretched to its breaking point.

Jack Goldsmith of Harvard University and Matthew Maxwell of Columbia University have written that the inclusion of the Islamic State in the AUMF is an illustration of “executive unilateralism,” whereby members of Congress are either left in the dark or too weak to do much about it. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Harold Koh—a former lead attorney for the State Department—said that “the 2001 AUMF is not needed as a perpetual legal authority” and that it should be revised or abolished at the appropriate time.  There seems to be a consensus that something—anything—should be done to fix the legal limbo that the United States finds itself in.

The 15-year anniversary of the 2001 AUMF should therefore be something other than a special day on the calendar. Instead, it should serve as a reminder to members of Congress that it’s well past time to amend the war resolution and tailor it to the current geopolitical environment.

Which terrorist groups would be included, where the authorization would apply, and what restrictions would be imposed is entirely up to Congress and the president. What is just as important as the content of any new AUMF is the fact that it would force elected politicians to debate matters of war and peace in full view of the country. Americans haven’t yet seen an honest discussion about the extent of the war their armed forces have been fighting for the past decade and a half.

So here is a call to both the president and Congress: stop thinking about the politics of casting a vote that may hurt your chances for reelection. Stop viewing war and peace as partisan issues. Get to work and collaborate on a new, tailored use-of-force authorization. Debate it in committee, and on the House and Senate floor, in view of the American people. And pass it.  

The American people and the men in women in uniform who are engaged in the fight are doing their jobs every day. Politicians ought to do theirs as well.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.



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