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It’s Long Past Time For Congress To Stop Writing A Blank Check To Wage War


White House Chief of Staff and four-star General John Kelly took to the White House press podium recently to remind us all what it means for a U.S. soldier to be killed overseas. In painstaking detail, he outlined the cleaning and embalming process of a soldier’s remains, the way bodies are carefully carried home, and the role of the casualty officer, whose job Kelly described as “break[ing] the heart of a family member.”

Kelly’s remembrance was made all the more significant because he has lived it. His son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, was slain in Afghanistan in 2010. His brief but powerful comments underscore the very real sacrifices we ask the men and woman in uniform to make on our behalf. They outline the necessary, tangible, and terrible dimension of sending Americans into war.

No one understands the weight of these choices better than current and former soldiers. It is significant, then, that a handful of them have come together to introduce a revised Authorization of Military Force (AUMF)—one that repeals the outdated AUMFs from 2001 and 2002 and replaces them with an updated authorization reflecting the realities of the current fight against terrorism.

The Importance of a War Authorization

An AUMF is, essentially, congressional approval of a pretense for war. It is Congress exercising its constitutional responsibility to determine whether a cause is righteous and essential enough to require the sacrifice of American lives and resources.

Congress understood this in 2001, when the original AUMF was authorized in response to the attacks of 9/11. As written, the AUMF gave the president specific authority to use “necessary and appropriate force” against “nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks” of 9/11. In 2002, it was joined by an AUMF for operations in Iraq.

Since that time, however, the mission has transformed and grown in scope. So much, in fact, that the 2001 authorization has now been used to justify U.S. military action more than 37 times in 14 different countries. The further we travel from 2001, the more distant and tangential military action becomes from the authority used to justify it.

Current U.S. counterterrorism operations are active in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere, all under the authority of the 2001 AUMF, which was intended only to sanction individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, at a Senate Foreign Relations hearing earlier this year, former Bush National Security Council legal advisor John Bellinger struggled to link the U.S. shoot-down of a Syrian fighter plane with the authority of the 2001 AUMF used to justify it.

“It’s hard for me to see that Congress, by authorizing the use of force against organization and nations and groups that committed the 9/11 attacks, authorized the use of force against Syria,” he said.

This Is a Dereliction of Congress’s Duty

In relying on out-of-date AUMFs—the 2001 AUMF is now the longest standing congressional authorization for the use of force in American history—Congress is failing in its constitutional responsibility to provide oversight and strategic political leadership in the deployment of our military, not to mention their moral obligation to our armed forces.

The military strategist Carl von Clausewitz established the dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Our Constitution recognizes this by vesting Congress with the role of authorizing military force. As George Washington put it in 1793, “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress.” Thus, “there can be no offensive expedition of importance … until after they have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.”

This is even more significant when one considers that most members of Congress were elected after the 2001 AUMF went into effect and have never had an opportunity to be part of a serious discussion about its continued relevance. As a result, neither has the American public. Without this national discourse, a critical disconnect is corroding the essential bonds between the will of the people and the military actions its government is pursuing.

The new AUMF introduced in the House last month seeks to remedy this by repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, and replacing them with a five-year authorization for military action against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (SIS), and those working with them. Critically, this version comes with a five-year sunset provision and a requirement for the executive to submit progress reports to Congress every 90 days.

The introduction of this AUMF and upcoming Senate hearings are refreshing attempts by Congress to take back its constitutional war-making mandate. Congress must commit to reexamine the scope of the threat and the necessity for force to provide security for Americans, and do so on a continuing basis. At a minimum, Congress should spend as much time considering their duty to authorize war as our troops do preparing to wage it.