Biden administration officials on Tuesday argued in favor of repealing the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War, saying doing so would not have an effect on ongoing military operations or the ability to protect U.S. troops in Iraq.
Testimony from Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and the top lawyers at the State Department and Pentagon reiterated the stance on repealing the 2002 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) the White House laid out in a written statement earlier this year.
But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday provided lawmakers with their first opportunity to publicly question administration officials on the issue.
“The Biden-Harris administration believes the 2002 authorization for the use of military against Iraq has outlived its usefulness and should be repealed,” Sherman told senators.
“For the State Department, repealing the 2002 AUMF would not affect our diplomatic initiatives, and the administration has made clear that we have no ongoing military activities that rely solely on the 2002 AUMF,” she added.
The hearing comes before the committee is scheduled to consider Wednesday a bill from Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KainePanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B Democrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' MORE (D-Va.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungHow to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) Senate Democrats try to defuse GOP budget drama The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R-Ind.) that would repeal the 2002 AUMF, as well as the 1991 AUMF that greenlighted the Gulf War.
Momentum has been building toward repealing the decades-old war authorizations since President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE launched airstrikes on Iranian-back militias in Iraq and Syria in February and June. Biden cited his authorities under Article II of the Constitution, not an AUMF, but the action still spurred congressional efforts to rein in existing war authorizations.
In June, the House voted to repeal the 2002 and 1991 AUMFs, as well as a 1957 resolution that provided broad authorization for military action in the Middle East to protect against “armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was originally scheduled to consider the Kaine-Young bill repealing the 2002 and 1991 authorizations in June, but Republicans on the panel demanded Tuesday’s hearing, as well as a classified briefing held in July, before the committee took up the bill.
Most Republicans have been arguing that repealing the 2002 AUMF could hamstring U.S. counterterrorism missions and embolden the Iranian-backed militias that have been targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.
“A repeal of this authority amplifies Iranian messages that they are ejecting the U.S. from the region, rewards Iranian proxies for attacks against Americans, and decreases U.S. leverage in the nuclear talks in Vienna, indeed if we have any leverage,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) said Tuesday.
In particular, Republicans have been pointing to the Trump administration’s drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The administration cited the 2002 AUMF as part of its legal justification.
But Caroline Krass, Pentagon general counsel, and Richard Visek, acting legal adviser at the State Department, stressed Tuesday that the 2002 AUMF was secondary to the Trump administration’s legal argument for the Soleimani strike, behind Article II authorities.
Sherman also shot back at Republican criticism that the Biden administration has not done enough to deter Iranian aggression in the Middle East, saying “nothing has stopped the attacks by Iran; the killing of Qassem Soleimani did not deter the Iranians from attacks.”
Visek, Krass and Sherman also held that the Biden administration believes it has sufficient authority under Article II to respond to any threats against U.S. troops in Iraq.
“Repealing the 2002 AUMF would not impede U.S. forces’ ability to protect and defend themselves. The Department of Defense would have raised concerns and opposed repeal if we thought it would have put any of our men and women in uniform at greater risk,” Krass said.
Counter-ISIS operations, meanwhile, are covered by the 2001 AUMF. And if something happens where the administration needs more legal authorities for military action, officials “will not hesitate to come back to Congress” and ask for those authorities, Sheman said.
Sherman also argued that repealing the 2002 AUMF could actually bolster the U.S. position in Iraq by formally acknowledging the U.S.-Iraq relationship has evolved in the past 20 years.
“Messaging is important,” she said. “I think repeal says that we have in fact succeeded. Repeal says that the time of Saddam Hussein is over, the time of an Iraq that was not a partner of the United States is behind us. So in my view and in the view of the administration repealing the 2002 AUMF is a sign of strength, of success, of moving forward in history.”