The proposed AUMF effectively cements Congress as the war clerk for the Executive Branch, representing a complete abdication of responsibility over matters of war.
A new authorization for the use of military force proposed by Democratic and Republican senators would further entrench the United States in endless war. It would also streamline the ability of President Donald Trump and future presidents to expand the “war on terrorism” to additional countries and broaden a list of “associated forces” that are “co-belligerents” of al-Qaida, the Taliban, or the Islamic State.
Under the proposed AUMF [PDF], which was drafted to replace the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs still in effect, military force against the Taliban, al-Qaida, ISIS, and “designated associated forces” is renewed.
On January 20, 2022, and every four years after, the president is to submit a report on the “use of military force,” which includes a “proposal to repeal, modify, or leave in place” the current AUMF.
It removes some of the ambiguity previously in the phrase “associated forces” by naming the groups: al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaida in Syria (including al-Nusra), the Haqqani Network, and al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
When the president determines that a “new organization, person, or force is an associated force covered,” a report should be submitted to the “appropriate congressional committees and leadership.”
A similar procedure is to be followed when adding new foreign countries to the list of places where the U.S. is at war. “New” countries are any countries other than Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya.
The AUMF proposal was put forward by Republican Senator Bob Corker and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine with the bipartisan support of Republican Senators Jeff Flake and Todd Young and Democratic Senators Chris Coons and Bill Nelson.
In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution as a response to the Vietnam War. The resolution was intended to ensure the President of the United States could only deploy U.S. military forces abroad through declarations of war, “statutory authorizations,” or in the case of a national emergency.
What the proposed AUMF would effectively do is cement Congress as the war clerk for the Executive Branch. It would represent a complete abdication of responsibility over matters of war, as granted by the separation of powers in U.S. government. The president would come to leaders of congressional committees with a report that is reviewed, filed, and updated accordingly, with Congress’ only task to make sure they can fit the latest war making into the parameters laid out for perpetual war.
Trump’s latest strikes against Syria renewed attention on Congress’ failure to assert authority over war making by the Executive Branch. Several Democrats, like Representative Nancy Pelosi, made process critiques and argued there must be an AUMF for Syria before Trump pursued more war. Yet, the proposed AUMF does not really deal with the issue of military action against sovereign countries.
It does not provide authority for the president to use military force against any nation state, but it also does not contemplate what Congress should do if the president is engaged in actions, like the strikes on Syria, which senators or representatives never approved.
Additionally, the proposed AUMF grandfathers in the war in Yemen, where the United States military has played an integral role in supporting a coalition led by Saudi Arabia that has brutally attacked Yemenis and blockaded civilians.
Senators Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Bernie Sanders attempted to force a vote on withdrawing U.S. military support for the war in Yemen because Congress has not authorized war in the country. Corker took great offense to this, and through the proposed AUMF, he and other senators are ensuring Murphy, Lee, and Sanders cannot challenge U.S. military action in Yemen again by retroactively approving war.
Out of 535 members of Congress, Democratic Representative Barbara Lee was the only person to vote against the 2001 AUMF. She previously opposed bombing Iraq in the 1990s and committing U.S. troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s intervention in Kosovo.
Lee declared, “This resolution, even though it was focused on the World Trade Center attack, is open-ended. It doesn’t have an exit strategy; it does not have any reporting requirements. And the president already has authority to use force [internationally for 60 days without congressional approval] under the War Powers Act. So what was this about?”
Her caution went unheeded by elected officials. The Executive Branch used the open-ended AUMF to develop a targeted assassination program, where the groups it believed it could attack with drones or other aircraft under the AUMF were kept entirely secret from the public.
Lee opposes the proposal from Corker and Kaine because she believes it will “continue our state of perpetual war.”
“Rather than reining in the Trump Administration’s blank check for war, the Corker-Kaine AUMF would continue all current military operations, allow any president to unilaterally expand our wars, and effectively consent to endless war by omitting any sunset date or geographic constraints for our ongoing operations. This legislation also further limits Congress’s role in war making by requiring a veto-proof majority to block military action from the president,” Lee declared.
Republican Senator Rand Paul also outlined his opposition to the proposed AUMF while he was on CNN on April 17. “It is a good idea to debate whether we should be at war or not. Unfortunately, the [AUMF] they’re putting forward actually expands the president’s ability to commit war.”
He continued, “For the first time, it will list six or seven groups that we’re at war with. If you remember, after 9/11, we were at war with those who attacked us and who aided and abetted them. But now, this is for the first time gonna codify six or seven groups, maybe 10-15 countries that we can be at war in. Really it’s limitless.”
“If we detect any of the groups having any activity in any country, the president can go to war there. He just has to submit a notice saying, hey guys, we’re now at war in a new country. And that to me is not a limitation. It’s an expansion of war making, and I think, a huge mistake,” Paul concluded.
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley opposes the proposed AUMF for similar reasons. “This new AUMF has no sunset clause – meaning it can be used indefinitely by President Trump and his successors to continue expanding the scope and geography of U.S. military action around the world. The absence of a sunset clause all but guarantees that this AUMF will be stretched by the executive branch to avoid coming to Congress for future authorizations, which is completely unacceptable.”
“Even more concerning, this legislation allows the president to unilaterally expand the scope of the authorization, both in the specific groups being targeted and in the countries in which the United States takes military action. The clear constitutional vision was for Congress and Congress alone to have the authority to initiate war. This AUMF stands that on its head, giving the President that power and leaving Congress with the impossible task of overriding presidential actions.”
“I cannot support an authorization that gives a blank check for endless war and turns Congress’s power over to the president. The Senate should indeed debate a new AUMF, but it must be one that has built-in timelines, mandates congressional approval, and limits the scope of the conflict.”
That is, for the most part, the extent of public opposition to the proposed AUMF, as of April 22.
Its supporters, like former Democratic Party vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, actually contend it will end the notion that the president has a “blank check to wage war.”
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson is gung-ho about the proposed AUMF, sounding like President George W. Bush’s administration in the days after 9/11.
“Terrorists groups such as ISIS pose a serious threat to our national security. This bill will give the president the clear legal authority he needs to target these groups in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else they may be hiding,” Nelson said.
Efforts to repeal and update the AUMF have occurred multiple times in the past decade. Most prominently, in 2015, President Barack Obama provided legislation for an AUMF that would cover strikes against ISIS. The proposal lacked limitations like this recent proposal. Congress never voted on the authorization, and Obama continued to rely on the 2001 AUMF to claim authority for military action.
“Over the last sixteen years, we have witnessed the consequences of unfettered executive power in matters of war,” Lee stated. “Instead of further endorsing perpetual war, we need to insist on an AUMF that is narrow, clearly defined, and respects Congress’s constitutional duty to debate and authorize military action.”
Senators appear to be appropriately concerned about the ways in which Trump could abuse his authority, unlike under the Obama administration. But that concern seems increasingly likely to translate into a measure that will transform Congress’ efforts to challenge the imperial presidency into even more of a charade.