Congress owes the American people a war debate

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The United States has been waging a so-called “War on Terror” in the Middle East for 16 years. We’ve lost thousands of service members in these conflicts. We’ve spent trillions of dollars. And it’s clear that despite our best efforts—and the valor of our men and women in uniform—there is no viable military solution to these wars.

While our progress has stalled, our military footprint has expanded—dramatically. Sixteen years after the “war on terrorism” began, we are locked in deadly quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, creeping toward all-out war in Syria, and assisting in military conflicts in Yemen, Libya and Somalia. And as the tragic ambush in Niger showed us, Congress has been left in the dark about many of our operations.

This is not what our Founding Fathers intended. The Constitution is clear: Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war. Yet Congress has abdicated this responsibility for more than a decade. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed into law a 60-word sentence that set the stage for perpetual war. This 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) contains no time limits, no geographic constraints, and no exit strategy. It has effectively become a blank check for any president, at any time, to wage war without congressional consent or oversight.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the 2001 AUMF has been cited as statutory authority for unclassified military or related actions at least 41 times in 18 countries. Both President George W. Bush and President Obama used it, and now President Trump is following the same path.

The 2001 AUMF has served the interests of both Congress and the executive branch. In abdicating their war authority, members of Congress have avoided taking tough votes or unpopular positions on our conflicts abroad. Meanwhile, the White House has used this convenient tool to boost presidential power over military action. Who loses out? The American people and our troops, who are asked to spend blood and treasure but are denied a basic debate and vote, through their elected representatives, on these ever-expanding wars.

We represent different parties. But we are united in our commitment to reclaiming congressional war powers, restoring serious deliberation around our military engagements, and finding a way out of perpetual warfare. This isn’t a partisan issue—it’s a question of fulfilling our constitutional obligations.

Congress can start by repealing the 2001 AUMF and holding a vigorous debate and vote on a new authorization that reflects current realities. While we don’t know the precise form a new AUMF may take, Congress should learn from its mistakes and advance a defined authorization that includes both temporal and spatial limits.

There is no victory with endless war. And Congress has failed the American people by accepting this state of affairs, ceding its ownership and oversight of military action in the process. Congress must go back to the drawing board and reassert itself before any more lives are lost to these undefined conflicts. Especially in war, the will of the American people, not the whims of any president, must prevail.

Lee represents California’s 13th District and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Amash represents Michigan’s 3rd District and is chairman of the House Liberty Caucus.

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