Public Pays Steep Price For Congress’ Failure to Reclaim War Powers

The airstrike that killed Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and the subsequent tensions between the United States and Iran have sparked a new debate in Congress over the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, or AUMFs, against al Qaeda and Iraq. These nearly 20-year-old authorizations for war have been interpreted far too broadly by Republican and Democratic presidents alike. The AUMFs have been used as the justification for conducting military actions in several countries beyond what was originally intended, and it’s time for Congress to repeal them.

The debate over using the War Powers Resolution to limit President Trump’s ability to engage in hostilities in Iran is certainly needed. But as necessary as this debate is, it overlooks the deeper, recent pathology that has rendered moot Congress’s Article I responsibility for deciding the question of war or peace.

Authorized in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2001 AUMF essentially launched the global war on terrorism. As the joint resolution explained, the 2001 AUMF authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

But the 2001 AUMF has been interpreted broadly and used to justify military action against terrorist groups that had no connection to al Qaeda or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As Republican Rep. Warren Davidson, a former Army Ranger, recently wrote, “The 2001 AUMF is horribly outdated, inadequate for today’s War on Terror, and stretched to the point of absurdity. It’s been used to support ongoing missions from Afghanistan, to Yemen, to ISIS, to Africa and against enemies, organizations, and nations with little or no connection to 9/11.”

Meanwhile, the 2002 AUMF applied only to Iraq and the “threat” the nation posed. That “threat” was the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and the development of nuclear weapons. As we now know, the claims were, to put it charitably, overstated. In hindsight, the Iraq War was clearly a mistake.

And after more than 18 years at war, the cost has been too great for this to continue.

The Watson Institute at Brown University recently estimated that the total budgetary impact of the war on terror through fiscal year 2020 is a whopping $6.4 trillion. We already faces serious long-term fiscal problems because of domestic entitlement spending, which is expected to continue to grow and produce larger budget deficits in the coming years. Congress must take a step toward addressing the financial burden this AUMF has imposed on the public.

Now, there are many who argue that our constant state of combat and overseas engagement is necessary to prevent foreign terrorists from bringing violence to U.S. soil. The response is very simple: If the threat is indeed so dire, it should be easy to make that case on the floor of Congress to obtain a proper AUMF for the specific threat at hand.

There is no need to hide behind a resolution that is almost two decades old. The only reason proponents might do so is if the threat is not actually as dire or the evidence is not actually as clear as they suggest.

This is the reason the framers of the Constitution gave Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. They wanted to avoid rash decisions that would embroil the nation in conflict. As James Madison wrote, “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature.”

Under no circumstances could this have possibly meant that the Congress is to authorize military force once and that said authorization will suffice for decades of intervention on end. The goal was to force a reasoned congressional debate on the merits. Sadly, Congress has time and again eschewed that goal in favor of political expediency.

This doctrine of perpetual war endorsed by both party establishments has serious side effects. For one thing, every time the nation enters wartime, the power of the government expands. That comes through emergency powers to limit speech, to spy on the citizenry, to spend absurd amounts on munitions, and to vest almost unquestioned power in the executive branch. Given the costs and the consequences here and abroad, voters should demand that the issue of war and peace be publicly debated in Congress every single time a new conflict arises.