by Benjamin Collinger
The global war on terror began fifteen years ago today. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress moved to create an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against the attackers. Three days later, the house and senate nearly unanimously passed a resolution granting sweeping authority to the president that George W. Bush signed on Sept. 18, only a week after the horrific attacks.
They agreed on Sept. 14, 2001 (fifteen years ago to the day) “That the President is authorized 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 Sept. 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.” The AUMF was signed into law by President Bush four days after.
Only one representative in either house of Congress opposed the AUMF: Rep. Barbara Lee of California. Lee urged her colleagues to be “careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” Fifteen years later, the U.S. lives with the consequences that Lee predicted. The 60 words that form the AUMF have literally defined U.S. counter terrorism policy for 15 years and remain the sole legal basis for today’s global war on terror (e.g. the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and current operations against ISIS) despite immense change.
The expansive, outdated and dangerous resolution has normalized an endless war. Under the Obama Administration’s interpretation, the AUMF cedes incredible war powers to the president and expands the targets of the war on terror. In reality, the 2001 AUMF only authorizes the use of force against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, those involved in the 9/11 attacks. It does not authorize force against ISIS, which did not exist until years afterward. Nor does it authorize action against other nations, organizations or persons that did not plan, authorize, commit or aid the 9/11 attacks.
The Obama administration’s rationale in using the AUMF to fight ISIS relies on the idea that it covers affiliates of Al-Qaeda (a tenuous interpretation at best); but ISIS is not such an affiliate and is now in fact fighting against Al-Qaeda in Syria. The administration argues that the current resolution provides the necessary legal authority, but welcomes a congressional debate on a new AUMF.
Legal scholars and foreign policy experts have derided the current AUMF as a document that defeats the founding fathers’ purposes and opening an era of indefinite war. Moreover, Captain Nathan Smith, an army intelligence officer, who was ordered to participate in operations against ISIS decided to challenge his orders in court. Smith argues that his orders violate the 1973 War Powers resolution, which stipulates that the president must seek authorization for war from congress 90 days after deploying forces.
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There is no doubt that the administration can further legal technicalities to justify its actions in the war on terror. However, extensive focus on legal minutia misses the point. If such a small resolution can justify exponential growth of the national security apparatus, we should be skeptical about its utility and cautious about its legality. Broadly applied resolutions like the AUMF cede important congressional decisions to the executive and enable an imbalance of powers among the government’s branches. Whether the U.S. chooses Clinton or Trump in November, this could be disastrous for generations if congress continues to stall debate on a new resolution. Our next president may have free reign to extrapolate upon the definitions of words in the AUMF to generate more authority for the endless war on terror by tyrannically circumventing congress.
If the AUMF is being grossly misinterpreted to our detriment, why is it not a more prominent issue? Why is it not at the center of the national debate on terrorism? In addition to gridlock, the reasons revolve around many of the common problems that ail our government.
First, the issue is quite complex. Determining the consequences of the definitions of words in the AUMF would likely require a lengthy procedural debate in congress, a proposition that might be risky in an election year. Constituents might view such a debate as unproductive, continuing the slide of congressional approval ratings. Second, inaction might make more legislative sense. Lawmakers might prefer not to pre-empt presidential action because of the low odds of succeeding and overriding a veto. Third, it is possible that neither party wants to check the executive’s ability to act first in the event of a terrorist attack. Most Democrats trust President Obama’s judgement, while Republicans, as much as some disapprove of his counter-terrorism policies, would rather not constrain a future Republican president. Yet there are certainly anomalies in each party like Tim Kaine and Ted Cruz.
One reason for inaction on the AUMF is more foundational. Our government’s failure to debate a new AUMF and to challenge the administration’s interpretation reflects the most recent iteration of a theme that Alasdair Roberts pointed out in Foreign Policy in 2007. Roberts explains that Americans used a small group of neoconservatives in the George W. Bush era as scapegoats for our disastrous experience in Iraq. After the Gulf War and the rise of neoliberalism, we developed the mentality that quick military interventions were not only possible, but easy. While it is true that administration officials at the time deserve their fair share of criticism, Roberts argues that people expected too much for far too little sacrifice and foresight.
Unfortunately, I see this theme in the AUMF (lack of) debate as well. The public is not concerned enough with the specifics of how and under what legal basis the U.S. fights terrorism. Rather, just like in Iraq, we demand sweeping success with little regard to the potential pitfalls. We have failed to demand accountability of our representatives and to recognize how far the words in the AUMF truly reach: rampant domestic surveillance, detention centers, racial profiling and erosion of the separation of powers.
Congress and public failed to foresee the expansive dimensions of the AUMF, the wars it has justified and its alteration of the constitutional balance of power. Chillingly, Rep. Barbara Lee’s lone dissenting vote in 2001 was the only word of caution. The time has come to revive the debate on those 60 words.
Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary. Benjamin is a research fellow with the San Antonio Diversity and Inclusion Office, member of the Trinity University Debate team and Vice President of Trinity Diversity Connection. He is interested in international affairs, anti-discrimination law and long-form journalism. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and listening to podcasts. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @bcstlsa or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.