Repeal the AUMF

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press briefing on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., January 17, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Enough is enough: It's long past time for Congress to reclaim its constitutional war-making power.

Nancy Pelosi complains that the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani was “provocative and disproportionate” and that it “risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence.” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders also have denounced the killing.

Pelosi further charges that the operation was unauthorized.

Specifically, Pelosi says the action was taken “without an authorization for use of military force against Iran.” But the airstrike happened in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, not in Iran. The Trump administration argues that the Iraq AUMF empowered the president to take this action, a position shared by many critics not ordinarily inclined to view the president with a great deal of indulgence, my friend David French among them. The administration’s case here is not obviously implausible.

Pelosi also complains that she was not notified of the operation prior to its execution, even though protocol calls for her and a few other top congressional leaders to be briefed. She must be especially irritated that she was left in the dark and Senator Lindsay Graham was advised of the operation while paying court to Trump in Florida.

But Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, not a passive bystander unable to do anything at all about a situation that, if we take her at her word, she believes to be potentially catastrophic. She can do more than stamp her foot. She could, if she were so inclined, begin the process of repealing the Iraq AUMF — which is long overdue, irrespective of the wisdom or propriety of the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

Congress has the power to remove any ambiguity in this matter, and it should.

The Iraq AUMF has been on the books since 2002, when it was enacted to empower the administration of George W. Bush to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is long gone. It is supplemented by an earlier AUMF, passed shortly after 9/11, which authorized the U.S. government to go after those responsible for the attacks of that day and any “associated forces.” But the version of al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 is long gone, too, even if the name lives on. Also gone is the principal actor behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, killed by U.S. forces and buried at sea. Conversely, the Tehran-backed militias (Kata’ib Hezbollah et al.) causing havoc in Iraq today — and killing Americans in the process — did not exist in 2001 or 2002. And if either AUMF was meant to include the Iranian state, then that certainly was not made explicit in the relevant texts.

On the one hand, we have an ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq and a wide array of legitimate U.S. interests in that country and in the broader Middle East; on the other hand, we have an Iranian regime looking to export its Islamist revolution far and wide in ways that pose direct and specific threats to Americans and U.S. interests.

Fortunately, there is a solution — right there in the Constitution. But it is a solution that will require Nancy Pelosi to do something more than carp: It will require the speaker of the House to do her job.

We should forthrightly admit that the 2001 and 2002 authorizations have outlived their rationales, that both the organization behind 9/11 and the troublemaking regime of Saddam Hussein have been eliminated — mission accomplished, at last. But Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were not the only threats in the world, nor the only threats emanating from the Middle East. Tehran is a problem. So is the rat’s nest of new terrorist outfits and regional militias that have sprung up after the vanquishing of al-Qaeda. The use of the 2001 and 2002 authorizations in the current military and political context is obviously pretextual, the barest little fig leaf to cover up the fact that Congress has abandoned its duties in the matter of war-making, delegating them to an increasingly imperial presidency.

These things have a way of getting out of hand. When the USA PATRIOT Act was passed (damn the authors of these cutesy acronyms), purported civil libertarians such as Barack Obama fretted that the law would empower Dick Cheney and sundry spooks to go peeking at Americans’ library accounts. (Note for Millennials: Libraries once were places where people went to borrow books rather than places where homeless people go to masturbate to Internet porn; ask your parents.) But once he himself was invested with the awesome power of the presidency, Obama saw things differently and enacted several innovations of his own, notable among them ordering assassinations of American citizens. Of course Pelosi and her cronies were largely silent about that — such criticism as there was came largely from Senator Rand Paul, the libertarian-ish Republican from Kentucky. Those “associated forces” considered in the AUMF grew to encompass a man known as “the Osama bin Laden of . . . Facebook.” And Democrats bent to President Obama’s will for much the same reason that today’s Republicans bend to Trump’s.

The 2001 and 2002 authorizations have served their purposes. They are open-ended enabling acts, and they should be repealed and replaced — if they must be replaced — with an instrument that is much more narrowly tailored and takes into account the current political and security realities, which are not what they were nearly 20 years ago. If the Democrats really believe that Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous threat in the White House — morally unmoored and psychologically unstable, as many of them charge — then they should act on that belief and begin the process of tying his hands.

Yes, that would mean a fight with Senate Republicans. But Pelosi is ready to have a fight with Senate Republicans over impeachment, and launching a war on Iran surely is a much more serious matter than Donald Trump’s telephone call with the Ukrainians and his assorted acts of petty, apple-stealing corruption. If Pelosi is not willing to have a political fight when it really matters, then of what use is she?

Congress and Congress alone has the power to declare war. The plain language of the Constitution is clear about that. If Nancy Pelosi wants to rein in the Trump administration — and leave a lasting legislative legacy that is worth a damn — she should reclaim that power for the legislature and guard it jealously.

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