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National Security & Defense

Democrats Take Aim at the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force

A U.S. Marine walks near Afghan National Army soldiers during training in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, July 5, 2017. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

The debate surrounding open-ended congressional authorizations for the use of military force is in full swing, and for the first time in two decades, Congress seems poised to roll back a 2001 legal justification for armed hostilities that it granted the executive branch two decades ago.

On Tuesday, an amendment to repeal the resolutions providing legal justification for America’s post-9/11 military operations and the 2002 Iraq war authorization by Representative Barbara Lee was adopted by the House Appropriations Committee. “Let’s finally end blank checks for endless wars,” wrote Lee, a longtime proponent of reining in presidential war powers, on Twitter yesterday.

Her proposal would repeal the 2001 authorization after eight months, to allow Congress a chance to replace the legislation, according to Politico’s Morning Defense Newsletter, and would repeal the 2002 authorization outright.

Six months into the Biden administration, it’s more likely than ever before that Congress will eventually vote to repeal that authorization, which provided legal justification for the Iraq War. The House of Representatives already approved such a measure last month with some support from conservative lawmakers, but it remains held up in the Senate, where Republicans who remain skeptical of pulling the resolution requested consultations with defense experts to determine its impact.

An eventual repeal vote would be significant but would remain small-ball stuff compared with repealing the 2001 AUMF. The 2002 authorization has been cited in a handful of cases beside the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the significantly broader congressional resolution that President George W. Bush signed on September 18, 2001 that granted him sweeping authority to wage the War on Terror is the main event. It’s among the most consequential pieces of foreign-policy legislation in U.S. history yet consists of just one key sentence:

That the President is authorized 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.

60 Words and a War without End” is what a blockbuster Buzzfeed News feature billed the 2001 AUMF in 2014. Those words authorized not only the war in Afghanistan but also operations in an additional 18 countries, according to a count by the Congressional Research Service. When Congress voted to adopt the resolution in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, it received overwhelming support and just a single vote in opposition from either house — from Lee.

“Let the congressional debate begin,” she told Buzzfeed, about repeal efforts amid ongoing U.S. military operations in such countries as Yemen and Somalia. “If people think it’s worth it for whatever reason, then let their member of Congress vote for it. That’s the point.”

With the adoption of her amendment by a House subcommittee, it seems at least that a critical mass of her Democratic colleagues have come around to that view, for the first time ever. It’s sure to kick off an extensive debate about whether, and just how, to limit the powers granted by the 2001 authorization. Anything from a clean repeal, to various measures to phase out the resolution over time, could theoretically come of this.

Despite the war-weary attitude reflected in public-opinion polls and the unprecedented amount of movement on repealing these authorizations, however, none of this will be a slam dunk. Defense hawks will point out that doing so would strip a key legal backing for operations overseas, including ongoing operations against ISIS, putting Americans at risk. Jettisoning the law would make it that much more difficult for the president to respond to security threats.

Whether the Biden administration would get behind efforts to roll back the 2001 law also is unclear. During his nomination hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “I would be determined and committed to working on” getting a consensus around a war-powers overhaul. The administration released a statement of support for repealing the Iraq resolution, making Biden the first president to support a rollback of any of these AUMFs, but supporting the same for the 2001 authorization would be a different thing entirely.

All of this comes amid a broader U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, led by the Biden administration, as well as a debate over a White House budget proposal that would cut the Pentagon’s budget. It comes to the backdrop of an emboldened Iranian regime’s election of a new hardline president and a Taliban resurgence in post-U.S. withdrawal Afghanistan.

This conversation about war-powers reform also ought to take these other factors and very real threats into account, without just deferring to talking points about endless war.

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