For more than a decade, the United States Congress has ceded war-making powers to the executive branch and abdicated its constitutional responsibility to debate and declare war if and when it is necessary.
The result has been a foreign policy that is increasingly disjointed and counterproductive, with the nation in a state of perpetual, aimless war.
On June 29, in a surprising display of bipartisanship, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee took an important step toward regaining congressional authority over matters of war and peace, voting in favor of an amendment to a broader defense spending bill to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force provided to the president following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Introducing the amendment was Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the lone member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF, who said of her vote against the AUMF that “I knew then it would provide a blank check to wage war anywhere, anytime, for any length by any president.” Lee has repeatedly sought repeal of the 2001 AUMF over the years, only now receiving significant bipartisan support.
Several Republicans, including military veterans, made clear it was time for Congress to fulfill its constitutional obligations. “We’ve had leadership honestly on both sides that have put off this debate again and again and again,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., in support. “If we’re going to send people to war, we owe them the support of the Congress of the United States.”
The amendment, which would give the Congress 240 days after approval of the appropriations bill before the AUMF would expire to debate the issue, was approved by voice vote. While the legitimacy of the vote has since been disputed by Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Foreign Affairs committee, the vote sends the important message that Congress should not continue shirking its responsibilities over a key component of American national security and international affairs.
The 2001 AUMF, passed just three days after the attacks of Sept. 11, grants the president sweeping authorization for military force against “those nations, organizations, or persons” the president “determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
The resolution has since morphed into a justification for a much broader set of interventions around the world, with only tenuous connections to the attacks of Sept. 11, from justifying military operations in Libya, Pakistan and Yemen, to fighting groups that didn’t even exist in 2001 like al-Shabaab in Somalia and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The AUMF has even been invoked to justify the warrantless surveillance of Americans and detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.
The past 16 years have vindicated Lee’s suspicion that the AUMF would serve as justification for wars without limits.
It is time for Congress to revisit and repeal prior AUMFs, and if it is necessary, debate and pass new authorizations with clear targets and time limits to keep Congress in the conversation. Without debate and limitations, America will remain in a state of perpetual war, with civil liberties threatened, countless dollars spent and human lives lost in pursuit of vague, open-ended and potentially unwinnable objectives.