Congress must reassert itself on use of military force


Last Wednesday the Senate quietly rejected a proposal by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to rescind the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which would have forced Congress to take a clear stance on the president’s actions overseas.

The Senate’s decision closely follows the announcement of President Trump’s new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, which was notably light on details and lacking in measures of success. By voting “no” on Senator Paul’s amendment, the Senate continues to abdicate their constitutional role in U.S. foreign policy, allowing the president to deploy American forces to places like Afghanistan without accountability.

{mosads}Rand Paul’s proposal, which lost on a vote of 61 to 36, was carefully designed to force Congress to debate the validity of America’s ongoing involvement in overseas conflicts.


While the legislative action would have repealed the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, the language of the amendment would have also delayed implementation by six months, providing time for Congress to consider and pass new, tailored authorizations as necessary. Instead, the Senate chose to preserve the existing authorizations, which the Cato Institute notes have been used to justify “everything from ‘boots on the ground in the Congo’ to drones over Timbuktu.” Regardless of the utility of any specific military action, the broad language of these authorizations limits Congress’ power to check the president’s use of force.

Despite the executive branch’s primacy in foreign policy, Congress has a vital constitutional role to provide oversight, and most importantly – to declare war. The passage of the 1973 War Powers Resolution additionally gave Congress the power to authorize the executive’s use of military force short of a war declaration. While Congress also has the means to curtail military operations by restricting funds, it has often avoided confrontation with presidents over war powers.

For example, members of Congress only began to seriously threaten funding for the war in Iraq when public opinion galvanized against the war in 2006. In addition, members of Congress repeatedly refused to challenge President Bush’s and President Obama’s expansion of special operations against al-Qaeda and other affiliated and non-affiliated groups in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, under the authority of the 2001 AUMF. Although Congress’ role to provide oversight has gained greater urgency during the Trump presidency, these powers are only effective if members of Congress are willing to use them.

Congress’ inaction comes in the context of President Trump’s “new” strategy for Afghanistan, presented as a path for victory in America’s longest war. While the administration’s plan was portrayed largely as a departure from President Obama’s management of the conflict, the strategy contained few distinguishing features and muddled its ends, ways, and means.

While this lack of detail was sold by the president as an intentional omission, apparently for the sake of strategic flexibility and operational security, the opaque nature of the announcement erodes the public’s ability to engage with the U.S. mission. The plan’s difficulties were further exacerbated by the revelation that the Pentagon had previously obscured the number of temporary units and special operations forces in the country, raising the total number of troops in Afghanistan from 8,400 to around 11,000.

The announcement of the president’s strategy additionally followed the news of multiple casualties in Afghanistan in recent months — passing headlines which attracted the most notice near military installations and in the hometowns of the fallen. It’s only natural that news coverage of the war and its casualties are more pronounced in the regions affected by those events, but in today’s society — where military service is increasingly confined to the American south and west, and to succeeding generations of military families — this means large swaths of the country remain unaware of the ongoing toll of America’s longest war. 

After all, while 56 percent of Americans said in 2015 that the United States had failed in its goals in Afghanistan, and 62 percent of Americans opposed sending more troops there as recently as June 2017, few Americans consider the war to be a pressing problem for the country. Even as national news outlets reported on the tense dynamics surrounding the president’s decision on Afghanistan, those events remain abstract for many people; meanwhile, the real, everyday costs for families in places like Fayetteville, North Carolina go largely unnoticed.

As military communities become more isolated, this painful disconnect will lead to even more dangerous consequences. Our society relies on a feedback loop of democratic accountability, in which the public prompts and restrains action by appealing to elected representatives and officials.

The civil-military divide in America, however, opens a gap in that loop; because most of society doesn’t experience the direct effects of war, they feel less urgency to compel politicians to act and change policy. Moreover, individual members of Congress may not feel compelled to provide needed oversight if they are not held to account on military issues. With so little pressure, members of Congress can avoid going on the record by casting controversial votes on whether to authorize the president’s wars. 

Whether President Trump has settled on the right strategy for Afghanistan, Congress has an imperative to reassert its proper role in U.S. foreign policy. Further Congressional inaction allows the president to commit forces overseas almost without restriction. As a result, the United States will continue to overburden an isolated and underrepresented military population — with few political consequences for anyone in Washington.

Andrew Swick is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security and an Army veteran. 

Amy Schafer is an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Tags Afghanistan–United States relations Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists Central Intelligence Agency Invasions of Afghanistan Iraq War Iraq–United States relations Military Military history by country Occupation of Iraq proxy wars Rand Paul Soviet–Afghan War War in Afghanistan
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