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It’s Long Past Time To Debate Presidents’ Authority To Wage Limitless War

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has now been used by three successive presidents representing both parties to wage war without geographic or chronological limit.


“When I voted in 2001 to authorize military force against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said last week, “I had no idea I would be authorizing armed conflict for more than 15 years, and counting.”

The American public had no idea either, but here we are. A decade and a half on, what began as a retaliatory measure for the destruction of 9/11 has become America’s longest war, costing trillions of borrowed dollars and claiming tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives.

The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Flake supported is still in use, offering threadbare legal cover to a range of military action well beyond its stated purpose. Often forgotten when not deliberately ignored, U.S. military intervention in the greater Mideast today drags on with no accountability, goal, or strategy worth mentioning.

In theory—setting aside, ad arguendo, Washington’s considerable inertia in foreign policy as in every policy—it all goes back to that AUMF, which authorized the initial invasion and has now been used by three successive presidents representing both parties to wage war without geographic or chronological limit.

The Legality Is Preposterous

To understand just how badly the 2001 AUMF, and the 2002 AUMF preceding the invasion of Iraq, have been distorted, consider that these are the documents that ostensibly underwrite the totality of the United States’ military wing of the war on terror. As you read this, U.S. troops are fighting terrorist groups that did not exist before 2006 (the Islamic State, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Shabaab) in countries neither AUMF ever mentions (Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen).

Unless our lawmakers have somehow concealed a talent for prophecy, this expansive program of free-range presidential war-making is not what they intended to authorize—and, regardless of intention, is not what should have been authorized by a responsible and responsive government.

All of that is why Flake has partnered with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to introduce a new AUMF, one that specifically forces the White House to clarify and Congress to debate the nature, strategy, and objective of the United States’ fight against ISIS. It is past time “for Congress to reassert some of the authority it has abdicated over the years” in foreign policy, Flake rightly said in a statement introducing the bill.

Flake and Kaine regularly crafted similar legislation during the Obama administration, but never gained traction. This time could be different: Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) hopes his committee will “during this next work period begin to take up the AUMF” because “we’re in a place now where it’s time to take it up” and review an ISIS strategy proposal from the Trump administration.

We Need to Re-Assess Our Dated Foreign Policy

Of course, a real debate, the substantive reevaluation of American foreign policy writ large that is years overdue, cannot begin with a foregone conclusion. If Congress is to represent well the interests and desires of the American public—which polling shows has no enthusiasm for and takes no comfort from our post-9/11 foreign policy—then this AUMF should serve as an occasion for a ground-up reassessment of the reckless, costly, and often counterproductive foreign policy of which Americans have rightly grown skeptical.

A new AUMF would strike a blow for accountability and reassert Congress’ constitutional authority in foreign policy, and in that sense it is a step in the right direction. More important, however, is the Flake-Kaine legislation’s potential to raise real questions about how we can develop a realistic grand strategy that rejects the mistakes of recent years to prioritize restraint, diplomacy, and free trade.

An AUMF debate is a useful tool, but it isn’t the endgame. The endgame is a fundamental reorientation away from Washington’s failed approach to matters of war and peace, so that, 15 years from now, Flake isn’t once again bemoaning the betrayal of his vote.