Post-9/11 military authorization plan needs fresh look
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Congress is slowly moving toward a review of the authorization for use of military force (AUMF) under which the United States has waged war for 16 years. The bipartisan effort, long overdue, still faces long odds. The views of the Trump administration on the issue are unclear. Congress, since an AUMF authorizing the invasion of Iraq passed in 2002, has been ambiguous on exercising its prerogatives under the War Powers Act of 1973.

There is also the simple matter of time. Congressional Republican leaders — with their agenda, notably on healthcare and taxation, falling well behind schedule — may be disinclined to give much priority to revisiting the 2001 AUMF.


The AUMF passed in Congress just three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It gives the president broad latitude to respond militarily to “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11.”  We launched our attack on al Qaida and its Afghan protectors, the Taliban, by the end of the year.


Since then, the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify action against a number of terrorist groups other than Al Qaeda, notably ISIS. True, President Obama in 2015 submitted a draft AUMF to address the threat represented by that group. But he carefully stipulated that U.S. military strikes against the group — launched six months before he sought authorization — were justified under the 2001 AUMF. Obama’s draft AUMF languished on Capitol Hill, but he continued military action against ISIS until the end of his term without specific congressional authorization.

In May, Senators Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military Democrats try to pin down Manchin on voting rights MORE (D-Va) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeOn The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Trump looms large over fractured Arizona GOP Why Republican politicians are sticking with Trump MORE (R-Ariz.) introduced a new AUMF that explicitly grants the president the right to take military action against ISIS. Their draft also included a procedure for expanding the list of hostile groups, additional reporting requirements by the president and a five-year sunset provision.

In June, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a hearing on a possible new AUMF. In the House, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the sole congressional “no” vote against the 2001 AUMF, actually succeeded in adding a provision to the mark-up of the Defense appropriations bill that would terminate the current AUMF in 240 days.  

Moreover, she did so with surprisingly strong bipartisan support. But the amendment will go nowhere. House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanZaid Jilani: Paul Ryan worried about culture war distracting from issues 'that really concern him' The Memo: Marjorie Taylor Greene exposes GOP establishment's lack of power The Hill's 12:30 Report - Senators back in session after late-night hold-up MORE (R-Wis.) has already had it stripped from the appropriations bill.

These steps towards a new AUMF, if tentative, do suggest a growing bipartisan interest in asserting congressional prerogatives over our military actions not just in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but in countries as far-flung as Libya, Yemen and Somalia.

This is not the place to discuss the constitutionality of the War Powers Act of 1973, or the president’s legal obligation to secure an AUMF. Experts differ, but a new AUMF has other virtues. It would encourage the president to make a comprehensive case to Congress for ongoing or future military intervention.  

It would compel Congress to accept responsibility for what is, ultimately, one of the most consequential acts of any state: the application of deadly force that will by necessity include the death and injury of innocent bystanders.

Above all, a new AUMF would provide an opportunity for citizens to assess the opportunities and risks associated with what now appears to be our endless war in the Muslim world.

The intervention in Afghanistan is a case in point: 16 years into our intervention there, success remains elusive. Indeed, the Trump administration has decided to send more troops to stem an eroding situation on the ground. At this point, we surely need something more than a cursory congressional hearing. We need an extended public debate about our goals, strategy, even something as basic as our definition of success.  

The same is true of our current efforts against ISIS, particularly in Syria, where the organization is in clear retreat. While this is a welcome development, it has raised fundamental questions about our future goals in Syria.

We may have inured ourselves to continued rule by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but what posture will we take vis a vis his Iranian and Hezbollah allies? What level of cooperation with Russia are we prepared to pursue? What are we ready to support in terms of Kurdish autonomy?

The 2001 AUMF was surely justified by the circumstances (though, in retrospect, it should have included an expiration date.), but circumstances change. That change, in turn, demands a reassessment of the facts and a recalibration of strategy. Otherwise we may find ourselves — indeed, already find ourselves — in wars without rationale and policies driven by nothing other than inertia.

Joe Barnes is the Bonner Means Baker research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.