Repeal Iraq War Authorization
It’s been more than 50 years since Congress repealed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) — the legal mandate our legislative branch passes to allow presidents to conduct combat operations overseas.
The last time Congress revoked an AUMF was in 1971, when public opinion turned decisively against the Vietnam War. President Nixon had ordered the gradual withdrawal of American forces and the “Vietnamization” of the conflict. He signed the repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, contenting himself as commander-in-chief with protecting the American combat troops who were then withdrawing.
Since then, Congress has ratified three successive AUMFs. In 1991, the authorization of military force against Iraq launched Operation Desert Storm. The 2001 authorization to use military force launched the invasion of Afghanistan and has now underpinned the global war on terrorism. Finally, the 2002 resolution on the authorization to use military force against Iraq sanctioned a campaign of “shock and awe” and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
For the fourth time in as many years, the House of Representatives has moved to repeal the 2002 Iraq War Authorization. The legislation is now sitting in the Senate, where a companion bill passed with bipartisan support from the Foreign Relations Committee. Now, 49 co-sponsors, including 11 Republicans, support overturning the authority. Last June, President Biden’s White House also signaled its support for repeal in a formal administrative policy statement.
The 2002 repeal of the AUMF would represent a modest but nonetheless historic step toward Congress reclaiming its constitutional prerogative to initiate, oversee, and ultimately end foreign conflicts. It would also remind the executive branch and its sprawling national security state that our lawmakers hold the ultimate sway on matters of war and peace.
No current military operation relies on the 2002 AUMF as the primary legal justification. On the contrary, the broad AUMF of 2001 provides broad statutory authority for continued force against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The current US troop presence in Iraq is carrying out its “advise, assist and enable” responsibilities at the invitation of the government in Baghdad, with which Washington has diplomatic, albeit strained, relations.
That our men and women in uniform stationed in Iraq continue to come under fire from hostile factions should hasten congressional deliberations on the purpose, effectiveness, and duration of their deployment. But the president’s prerogative under Article II to protect Americans from real and imminent threats provides ample leeway to strike in self-defense.
Meanwhile, all of the key enemies the 2002 AUMF was drafted to defeat are dead and buried. Saddam Hussein met the end of the executioner’s noose in 2006. His sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a shootout with US forces in 2003. The Baath Party was driven deep underground.
So why has this authorization outlasted its opponents?
Clearly, Congress is comfortable deferring to the executive in matters of war. Having repeatedly failed to get the Senate to vote, the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body’ has proven reluctant to assert its Article I birthright and prized claim as an equal branch of government. .
Thus, a matter of basic constitutional hygiene—in this case, the repeal of an obsolete war license—has been overlooked and the legal debate skewed. In its deference to the executive, the august upper house has allowed successive administrations to concoct bold new interpretations of AUMF 2002. It has sometimes been cited as an “alternative statutory basis” to operations conducted under the AUMF. authorization of 2001. More imaginatively, it “enhances” combat operations beyond the sovereign borders of Iraq.
Congress should take this opportunity to revoke an indefinite authorization that could be subject to future executive mischief. A further breach of their constitutional duty would be further evidence that our elected officials have little interest in the conduct and conclusion of our wars.
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Successive administrations have come to power promising a change of strategy. As President Donald Trump remarked at the 2020 West Point launch, “We are ending the age of endless wars…It is not the duty of American troops to resolve old conflicts in distant lands that many people have never even heard of.” President Joe Biden echoed that sentiment when he promised an end to our “eternal wars.”
Now the Senate has the opportunity to make history. The repeal of the 2002 Iraq war authorization would be the first such action in half a century. It would begin to restore the function of Congress as a vital check on the executive branch and the unelected national security bureaucracy that fuels these wars. More importantly, it would exert a legislative force that has atrophied over the past 20 years.
Let Congress begin with the fruit at hand: ending a ended war. Repeal the 2002 AUMF, reclaim some dignity in Congress, and perhaps weigh the past and present of America’s long saga in Iraq.