When the United States was created, the founders worked to steer clear of major pitfalls that they saw as threats to their democratic project. Rebelling against the unbridled power of a king to wage war, they gave Congress, and only Congress, the power to determine whether or not to enter into military conflicts with other nations. Unfortunately, Congress has been shirking its duty as of late by ceding this critical power to the executive branch. Last week, some lawmakers took action to put an end to this distortion of our democracy.
On November 6, a bipartisan group of 35 House Representatives sent a letter to the new Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) calling on him to bring an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS to the House floor for a debate and a vote.
The letter was spearheaded by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-MA), Tom Cole, (R-OK), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Walter Jones (R-NC), Peter Welch (D-VT), and John Lewis (D-GA). This letter represents the latest of many efforts by a vocal minority in Congress that wants Congress to fulfill its constitutional duty to debate and vote on war.
The letter acknowledges the division within Congress on the path forward, but calls for action nonetheless:
We do not share the same policy prescriptions for U.S. military engagement in the region, but we do share the belief that it is past time for the Congress to fulfill its obligations under the Constitution and vote on an AUMF that clearly delineates the authority and limits, if any, on U.S. military engagement in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding region.
Since the end of WWII, the way we talk about war has changed. In 1949, what had previously been called the Department of War became the Department of Defense. The US hasn’t officially declared something called “war” since 1941 when we declared war on Japan. Wars are now called armed conflicts or military actions. Authorizations of war are now called authorizations for the use of military force. While the use of euphemisms is problematic, even more troubling is that we’re currently fighting wars in at least 3 countries (arguably more) without having authorized the use of military force since 2002.
One week after 9/11, Congress swiftly and almost unanimously passed the 2001 AUMF authorizing the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” This broad authorization allows for the use of force against a vaguely defined enemy without any geographical boundaries, and more importantly without any expiration date. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) was the only one to vote against it. This is the authorization that President Obama says gives him the legal justification to wage wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.
In 2002, Congress passed another AUMF that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq. This authorization limited the geographic location of the campaign to Iraq, but also lacked an expiration date. The President is using this authorization as well as the 2001 AUMF to justify our ongoing military presence in Iraq.
Since then, some members of Congress have tried and failed almost a dozen times to limit the President’s authority to conduct war. The reason for Congress’ inaction on this issue, as with most issues, comes down to political calculus. Republicans don’t want to limit the authority of the executive branch to conduct war. If anything, they think Obama should have more authority to wage war. Democrats on the other hand want to constrain the President’s war-fighting authority. Many want to repeal the 2001 AUMF, which is a sticking point for Republicans, and most Democrats want to limit the use of ground troops. The leadership in Congress doesn’t want to bring the issue to a vote because they think it will fail to pass, which would further undermine the war’s legitimacy.
But with more and more news about failed Pentagon programs, ISIS victories on the battlefield, and continued escalation by all parties, pressure on Congress to do something has not receded. As the war against ISIS and the Syrian Civil War drag on and intensify, reining in executive authority to conduct war is as important as it’s ever been.
Ideally, Congress would simply repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and remove all legal justification for our military involvement in the Middle East. If Congress fails to do that, as it has in the past, passing a restrictive and limited AUMF against ISIS that repeals the old AUMFs may be the best way to rein in that authority. Peace Action will not support an authorization of force against ISIS, but we do support Congress debating and forcing an up or down vote on the war. If Congress does that, we will support amendments to or clauses of an authorization that repeal the old AUMFs and significantly limit the time frame, the geographic location, the use of ground troops, and the definitions of targets.
Time will tell if this latest push in Congress to debate a war that started 15 months ago will yield results. But until Congress does its job, the American people can’t sit idly by. This is too important.
Please call your representative at the Congressional switchboard at 844-735-1362 and tell them to do everything in their power to limit the power of the President to conduct war without Congressional approval.