At a recent meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, California congresswoman Barbara Lee, as she has done most years over the last decade and a half, put forward an amendment to the Pentagon’s proposed budget. The amendment would repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which Congress passed three days after September 11, giving President Bush complete freedom to wage war on anyone involved in the attacks, or anyone who gave the planners and attackers harbor. The AUMF’s passage was nearly unanimous; the only Congressperson who voted against it was Lee. On every previous occasion, the committee had rejected Lee’s amendment. But this time an actual debate broke out, at the end of which the amendment was approved with strong bipartisan support, meaning it could come up for debate and a full vote in the House. The amendment was then stripped from the bill by Speaker Paul Ryan before any debate could take place. Still: Congress appears to have developed an interest in taking up a question it has been studiously avoiding since the very beginning of this century.
The AUMF is the War on Terror’s key piece of legislation. The text of the law is brief, beginning with, “Whereas, on September 11, 2001, acts of treacherous violence were committed against the United States and its citizens,” and ending with an assurance that nothing in it would supersede “any requirement of the War Powers Resolution,” the 1973 law passed (over Nixon’s veto) to prevent any more Presidents from waging undeclared war, as they had for years in Korea and Vietnam. In practice, however, the main effect of the AUMF has been precisely to supersede the War Powers Resolution, which at this point may as well not exist. The AUMF frees Presidents to fight “terrorism” without having to seek Congressional approval to do so, and it frees Congress from having to take any responsibility for the moral or strategic costs of those conflicts.
A 2016 paper from the Congressional Research Service helps to illustrate the AUMF’s reach. The CRS found thirty-seven separate instances between 2001 and 2016 on which Presidents Bush and Obama cited the AUMF as authorizing them to engage in some form of military action overseas. These include: combat action against al Qaeda in Afghanistan (2001); the opening of Guantánamo, as well as foreign military training in the Philippines, Georgia, and Yemen (2002); deployment to Djibouti and “maritime interception operations on the high seas” (2003); military operations in Iraq (2004); deployment (it’s not specified where) to enhance counterterrorism capabilities of “friends and allies” (2006); airstrikes and sea-launched strikes against Somalia (2007); “working with counterterrorism partners to disrupt and degrade al Qaeda and its affiliates” (2010); the detention of some one thousand “al Qaeda, Taliban, and associated fighters,” plus the execution of a “clear-hold-build strategy” in Afghanistan (2011); “direct military action against al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula,” including in Yemen (2012); the capture of a single member of al Qaeda in Libya (2013); and a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the use of US armed forces to support Iraqi security forces, a series of strikes against the Khorasan group of al Qaeda in Syria, and one airstrike in Somalia (2014). 2015 saw US support for anti–al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, US support of a Kurdish Peshmerga rescue operation in Iraq, the deployment of US forces to northern Syria, and the deployment of combat aircraft and personnel to Turkey—all authorized by the AUMF. Not that Congress has, save in a few cases, ever bothered to ask.
The AUMF specifies that the war-making powers it confers on the President only extend to “nations, organizations, or persons” that were directly involved with the September 11 attacks, which makes using it to authorize a war against the Islamic State seem like a bit of a stretch. Under its former name, Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, the group fought alongside al Qaeda in the Iraqi insurgency, but al Qaeda formally disowned the group in February 2014, before US–IS conflict escalated dramatically with IS’s capture of Mosul. Fortunately, the Obama Administration had already retheorized the AUMF such that its jurisdiction could be said to include IS, arguing in a 2009 brief relating to detentions at Guantánamo that Obama’s AUMF authority to detain enemy combatants extended to “persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces.” Given that al Qaeda and IS regularly fight each other in Syria, the most accurate way to read “associated forces” would probably be, “forces opposed to the US, for any reason.”
To his (not unqualified) credit, Obama did make some effort to avoid this embarrassment. In February 2015, he asked Congress to approve a new AUMF that would deal specifically with IS. The text of the proposed AUMF retained the vague language about “associated forces,” but at the very least, it named IS specifically, set its own expiration date three years out (the original AUMF had none), and required that Obama report to Congress on the war’s progress every six months. Congress never brought it up for a full vote, though each party had its own reasons to be reluctant. Democrats, perhaps recalling that Hillary Clinton’s vote for the invasion of Iraq had cost her the nomination in 2008, were muted in their support for a measure that would have required them to express their views on the country’s wars. Republicans, meanwhile, finally discovered the limits of their loathing for the Democratic President: they simply could not support a bill that would restrict any President’s authority to kill people overseas. This view produced an almost awe-inspiring moment of political surrealism from House Speaker John Boehner, who said in an interview, “Until the President gets serious about fighting the fight, until he has a strategy that makes sense, there’s no reason for us to give him less authority than what he has today. Which is what he’s asking for.” (Obama enabled all of this by making it clear that he would be bombing the hell out of IS whether Congress approved his AUMF or not.)
When Barbara Lee lodged the only vote against the 2001 AUMF, she was performing a genuine act of political courage. Her office was inundated with death threats, and for a time she required a twenty-four-hour security detail. For not just Democratic but also Republican committee members to now come around to her view is in some respects a remarkable (though overdue) development. For Democrats, the motivation to revoke the AUMF and debate a new one is easy to understand: the sitting President is a member of the opposing party and also a maniac who is much more likely to start a war with North Korea than disrupt the operations of any terrorist group. As for Republicans, despite their control of all three branches of government, they find themselves unable to command much of anything. A weak and fractured party with a liability in the Oval Office, they probably feel that they cannot afford to let Trump dictate US military policy if they want to avoid a serious collapse before his term is out. Periods of executive weakness have historically been fine opportunities for the legislative branch to reassert authority over foreign affairs—an authority disproportionately held and wielded by the executive since well before the war on terror began. It is not a coincidence that Congress passed the 1973 War Powers Resolution in the midst of Watergate, and a tentative realignment of the balance of government powers is now probably underway.
The prospect of this realignment, however, should probably induce more anxiety than excitement in those on the left. Despite the gestures that Trump’s White House advisers regularly make toward nationalist isolationism, those views have little traction in Congress outside the Senate’s resident libertarian scamp, Rand Paul. The Republicans’ views remains clear: the US should have the prerogative to use military violence to pursue American interests anywhere in the world. The Democrats’ hawkish wing, led until recently by Hillary Clinton in her role as Secretary of State, holds the same view. But its more liberal cohort has never articulated a substantially alternative view. Though he made much of Clinton’s early support for the Iraq War, Bernie Sanders still failed to articulate such a view during his primary campaign, nor did he make an effort to jump-start a serious public discussion of the subject. His failure is mirrored in the organized left at large. If the House does ultimately decide to take up a debate on the AUMF, Democrats may find themselves, for lack of an actual policy vision to advance, helpless to avoid going along with the collection of Dr. Strangeloves across the aisle.
It would take some time for any Congressional debate on America’s war machine to bear fruit. Reorienting foreign policy requires as a baseline that one have ideas about what to do, and Democrats as a party have done no thinking about foreign policy in the last fifteen years. But if they were looking for a place to start, Democrats could do worse than to take up another proposal recently advanced by Barbara Lee. At regular intervals over the last decade, Lee has introduced legislation that would create a cabinet-level Department of Peacebuilding.1 It would be devoted not only to heading off and resolving military conflict abroad but also to addressing different forms of violence in the US—including gang conflict, domestic abuse, and school bullying. The department’s existence would constitute the federal government’s recognition of peace as a “strategic national policy objective,” and it would ensure that as soon as Congress or the President decided to launch some military action, at least one cabinet-level official would be marshaling the resources and influence of their department to bring that action to an end.
This idea is more than two hundred years old. It was first proposed by Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, in 1793. Five congressmen made similar proposals during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1955 and 1968, eighty-five Congressional bills were introduced that would have created such a department. Eight other congressmen introduced similar bills through the rest of the century, plus Senators Dennis Kucinich and Mark Dayton in the 21st. That such a proposal initially strikes one as a cute hippie joke or a bit of legislative grandstanding has nothing to do with its merits. It has to do with the outrageous extent to which the idea of a permanent state of war has been normalized in American political life. (Lee, the child of military parents, no doubt knows this firsthand.) The establishment of a Peace Department would by no means be a comprehensive solution to the problems of America’s reliance on war as an instrument of foreign policy, but it would at least acknowledge that normalization, which might in turn begin the work of undoing it.
The name Lee originally proposed was the “Department of Peace,” which is better, for the same reason the Department of Agriculture isn’t the “Department of Plant-Cultivating.” ↩