Congress Has a Chance to Reclaim Its War Powers | Opinion

In response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed into law the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to provide the legal authority to pursue and punish those responsible. The following year, the 2002 AUMF was passed to authorize the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein.

Over the last 20 years, both laws have been used to justify military actions disconnected from their original intent. These laws—unmodified since their original passage—have sanctioned combat operations in at least 19 countries.

Successive congresses have abdicated their constitutionally prescribed role in foreign policy, allowing four presidential administrations to exploit the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and stretch their Article II authorities. Multiple military conflicts have been expanded or initiated with minimal congressional oversight and debate.

It is past time for Congress to firmly reassert its role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. After 20 years of endless war, it owes its constituents—including our men and women in uniform—a better foreign policy that prioritizes keeping Americans safe. Rather than abdicating its solemn duties, Congress must inquire, "Why, at what cost, and toward what end?" are young American servicemembers sent to fight and die for ill-premised objectives that are fundamentally disconnected from vital national interests. Further evasion of these hard questions cheapens the "true faith and allegiance" they swore to uphold when elected to office.

Over 7,000 Americans have lost their lives and tens of thousands more wounded in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Africa. These conflicts have cost the American taxpayer over $6.4 trillion dollars—a number that will surely continue to grow as wars drag on and the cost of caring for veterans of these wars is tallied.

Congress has several ways it can help bring an end to our endless wars while helping shape a better foreign policy.

First, in the coming months the House of Representatives will likely have an opportunity to repeal the 2002 AUMF by passing legislation introduced by Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)—a stalwart champion of Congress reclaiming its powers in matters of war and peace. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.), which has been endorsed by the Biden administration. Additional legislation repealing the outdated 1957 and 1991 AUMFs has been introduced by Representatives Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) and Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Passage of these bipartisan bills should be a no-brainer for a Congress bitterly divided on other issues and an important first step toward Congress reclaiming its most important prerogative.

The U.S. Capitol building
The U.S. Capitol building is seen at sunrise. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Congress should also consider revision—or outright repeal—of the 2001 AUMF. More than the 2002 AUMF, this law has been stretched to justify conflicts far afield from its original intent of authorizing operations against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. It is worth acknowledging that the underlying purpose of the 2001 AUMF has been satisfied: Osama bin Laden is dead, Al-Qaeda has been decimated and the Taliban severely punished. And despite never being amended, this authorization has been cited to account for operations against groups that didn't even exist on 9/11 in places such as Somalia and Libya.

If Congress repeals the 2001 AUMF, the executive branch still has the authority to authorize military operations to repel imminent attacks and to engage in self-defense (although Congress should take steps to ensure that this authority isn't stretched too far, as it was by President Joe Biden's recent airstrikes in Syria). If Congress identifies a need to replace the 2001 AUMF, it should authorize force against clear targets given specified objectives, geographic boundaries and clear sunsets.

Congress should also use its power of the purse to assert its authority in foreign policy. This is in many ways the most effective tool Congress has and it has been used successfully in the past to end American involvement in conflicts, including Vietnam.

Repealing outdated AUMFs and helping end our forever wars around the globe would enjoy broad support from the American people. Poll after poll has shown a majority of Americans want an end to our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while also supporting Congress playing a greater role in authorizing military conflicts abroad.

I am proud to have deployed to Iraq as a U.S. Marine. Many of those I served with are still in uniform and are still deploying to war zones on a regular basis, even if they harbor doubts about the necessity of those conflicts. Congress owes it to them to step up and do its job by reasserting itself in matters of war and peace. Failing to do so dishonors those who have and who continue to serve overseas in the wars that have dragged on in part due to congressional inaction.

Dan Caldwell is a senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America and the campaign manager for foreign policy at Stand Together. He is a veteran of the Iraq War.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.