Is Congress finally going to take back its power to declare war?
If it does, it will be largely thanks to Barbara Lee
The war in Afghanistan — the longest sustained military conflict in American history — could soon come to an end. So could any number of "humanitarian interventions," "kinetic military actions," "surgical strikes," or any other euphemisms for war that the U.S. has relied upon for the past 16 years. And it could happen because one congresswoman who saw through the fog of fear and rage in the days after the 9/11 attacks — and presciently warned of the dangers of handing a blank check to the executive branch to wage war against an amorphous stateless enemy — was able to convince her colleagues that it was well past time for Congress to do its job with regard to sending our service men and women into battle.
Last week, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) submitted an amendment into the House Appropriations Committee's 2018 defense spending bill that would repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force within 240 days of the bill's enactment. The one-page act "applies with respect to each operation or other action that is being carried out pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force initiated before such effective date."
This means that authorization to continue the generation-long war in Afghanistan, the routine drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, and the global battlefield that includes anywhere al Qaeda or its offshoot ISIS have set up shop, would revert to Congress rather than the president.
Lee — who has previously proposed legislation to repeal the 2001 AUMF five times dating back to 2010 — introduced the amendment with no preceding hype but won over other members of the committee in short order, including Republicans and military veterans, with Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) saying, "This is something where Congress has collectively avoided taking responsibility for years." According to BuzzFeed, the amendment was passed via a voice vote "with a resounding chorus of 'ayes,' and only one or two 'nays'," which seemed to shock even Lee, who tweeted (in part) "Whoa" when announcing her amendment had been adopted.
President Trump is the third straight commander-in-chief to invoke the 2001 AUMF, most recently relying on it to justify strikes against government forces in Syria. Say what you will about the monstrous Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but he had nothing to do with 9/11 and the group who perpetrated the worst terror attack on U.S. soil — al Qaeda — is one of Assad's mortal enemies. Clearly, we've lost the narrative when we've become "al Qaeda's air force," as some critics of U.S. military mission creep have put it.
Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2013 memo that the AUMF was "groundbreaking" because it "empowered the president to target non-state actors" and "did not specify with states and non-state actors were included." As a result, the AUMF (which passed on Sept. 14, 2001 in the House by a vote of 420-1 and in the Senate 98-0, with Lee the lone dissenting vote) has been publicly relied on for at least 30 military actions, including in various countries Congress has not declared war upon, such as the Philippines, Georgia, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, and Somalia.
Only three days after 9/11, Lee defended her vote against the AUMF — for which she was widely pilloried as "anti-American" and a "supporter of America's enemies" — as a plea to pause the march to war "just for a minute" so Congress could "think through the implications of our actions so that this does not spiral out of control." With children born in 2001 eligible to join the military in less than two years, no reasonable person can look at the 2001 AUMF and assert that the "war on terrorism" has been won, nor does our current slate of foreign conflicts look anything like a direct military intervention against al Qaeda and the Taliban government of Afghanistan who harbored them. Rather, it looks more like what Lee feared: "a blank check to wage war anywhere, any time, for any length, by any president."
The fact that Lee's amendment calling for repeal of the AUMF was adopted does not mean it will pass, and it may not even be debated because of cross-committee procedural quarreling. Speaking to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee cited House rules stating "a provision changing existing law may not be reported in a general appropriation bill," and added, "The Foreign Affairs Committee has sole jurisdiction over Authorizations for the Use of Military Force."
Whether or not this amendment survives, it's telling that so many in both parties and both houses of Congress have finally come around to see the danger in allowing for a "blank check" to use military force, as also demonstrated by a Senate draft resolution written by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to repeal both the 2001 AUMF and 2002 AUMF against Iraq, which was discussed earlier this year.
Though Democrats tend to paint themselves as marginally less interventionist than Republicans, it was a shameful abdication of congressional duty that President Obama's party never demanded he prove his case for war for his many interventions (including the disastrous Libya campaign) over eight years in office. To be sure, Republicans were barely more interested in taking a new vote over the use of military force, because if the mission succeeded, the credit would be Obama's. If it failed, the GOP could blame Obama.
So why did Lee's fellow committee members — including Republicans and hawkish Democrats — come over to her once unthinkably naïve and/or unpatriotic side?
Perhaps they fear that keeping the authority to wage unilateral war in the hands of President Trump isn't the best idea. Perhaps they accept that 16 years of endless war against an ever-redefined enemy without so much as a fact-based debate on the floor of Congress is enough. Perhaps they simply recalled that war-making is constitutionally their job and it's well past time they took ownership of such a critical role. But whatever the reason, good for them. It's about time.