Congress Must Debate America’s Forever Wars
In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress authorized the use of force against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Seventeen years later, the White House still uses that congressional authorization to justify U.S. military involvement in conflicts around the world. In many of these conflicts, the administration has failed to articulate a coherent set of achievable U.S. objectives or a theory of victory for how to achieve them. Congress has an obligation to conduct oversight of U.S. military involvement in hostilities, but it has largely failed to hold presidents accountable.
In April, the Trump administration, alongside European allies, launched airstrikes against the Syrian regime after an apparent chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians. Aside from retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, it is unclear how the airstrikes are intended to fit within broader U.S. objectives in Syria. While there are about 2,000 U.S. Special Forces personnel deployed in northeastern Syria, the Trump administration has done little to clarify what their mission is or to elucidate their longer-term goals for the Syrian conflict. While some senior members of the administration such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis have articulated the more narrow mission of defeating ISIS, others, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have outlined a more expansive mission that includes ending the ongoing conflict between the regime of Bashar al Assad and its opponents in Syria.
In addition to Syria, the U.S. military is involved in active conflict zones in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. These ‘forever wars’ endanger the lives of U.S. service members, drain taxpayer resources, and risk generating enmity against U.S. policy abroad. Meanwhile the White House has failed to articulate how these deployments contribute to U.S. security and international stability.
Congress has failed to hold the administration accountable. In October 2017, when four U.S. Special Forces personnel were killed in Niger under murky circumstances, several senators expressed surprise that U.S. troops were even deployed in Niger.
The 1973 War Powers Resolution limits the president’s ability to deploy U.S. forces into hostilities without congressional consent, and gives Congress leverage to hold the administration accountable. Most of the ongoing deployments are understood to be authorized under the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force. But the 2001 Authorization, which passed Congress less than a week after the September 11th attacks, authorizes the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determined planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11th,” without specific geographical or temporal limitations. Almost 17 years later, according to the unclassified section of a recently released report, the administration asserts that the 2001 Authorization provides the grounds for the United States to use force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger.
This interpretation appears to significantly stretch the intention of the measure. Yet since it was passed, the 2001 AUMF has been cited as the authorization for military actions in 41 instances across 18 countries. This raises important questions about the legality of the use of military force. But it also presents Congress with a critical opportunity to conduct oversight over the deployment of U.S. forces in a way that clarifies their mission and to call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces when their presence does not enhance U.S. and international security.
When Congress does choose to play this oversight role, the ensuing debate can help clarify the role of U.S. forces abroad. Recently a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation titled S.J. Res. 54 that “direct[ed] the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorized by Congress,” arguing that support for the Saudi-led coalition intervening in the civil war in Yemen was not covered by the scope of the 2001 AUMF. The Trump administration has responded by arguing that congressional authorization is not needed for its support to the Saudi-led coalition.
The legislation did not pass the Senate but garnered 44 votes in favor, a significant demonstration of some senators’ discontent with the administration’s interpretation of the 2001 AUMF. Perhaps more important, the introduction of this legislation facilitated a public debate on the utility of the coalition intervention in Yemen to U.S. national interests and regional security, while also raising media coverage of this often-forgotten conflict.
Congress has an obligation to conduct oversight of U.S. military involvement around the world. It has had the opportunity to do so over the past 17 years by sunsetting the 2001 AUMF and passing a new authorizing bill that would place specific limits on the groups that can be targeted; require reporting requirements and other provisions requiring active consultation with Congress; and apply temporal limitations. So far it has failed to do so.
The goal of defeating terrorism around the world as articulated in the 2001 AUMF is so broad that it is impossible to know when a mission’s objectives have been achieved. Congress has a critical role to play in clarifying the scope of the AUMF—and ideally passing a new one—as well as shining a spotlight on potential disagreements with the White House’s interpretation of where the AUMF can be applied. Congress should use its authority to pressure our political leadership to, as Phil Klay writes, articulate “a mission and objective worth dying for.” This would do a service to U.S. security objectives and to our military personnel deployed around the world.