On September 11, 2001, the United States experienced the greatest attack on its soil since Pearl Harbor. In response, Congress authorized President George W. Bush to use military force against those deemed responsible, specifically Al-Qaeda. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorism (AUMF) effectively gave President Bush a blank check to wage war against Al-Qaeda and those who had played any role in helping them carry out the attack. The purpose of this article is not to argue whether or not attacking Al-Qaeda and was a good idea; the threat posed by Al-Qaeda was – and still is – evident and had to be addressed by the United States. It has become clear, however, that the 2001 AUMF has outlived its usefulness and needs to be replaced with a resolution that better fits the current domestic and international environment.
The text of the resolution states the following:
“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 September 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 phrase “in order to prevent any future acts of terrorism” is open-ended, particularly for a resolution authorizing military force. This language has served as justification for three successive administrations to fight, detain and kill individuals and groups that had little or nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
The 2001 AUMF allowed U.S. forces to be sent as far afield as the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, and Somalia: places far removed from Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden, the original target of the resolution. The text’s phrasing is so broad that President Obama had used it to justify military action against ISIS, a group that did not exist when 9/11 occurred.
In today’s Congress, only Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the lone dissenting voice during the original vote, continues to try and repeal the measure. However, she is denied from even holding a debate on the issue. In 1970, Congress promptly repealed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution after it was discovered that President Nixon had used it as justification to expand the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia. By 1973, Congress had instituted the Wars Powers Act, reaffirming its right to declare and pay for war and creating the mechanism through which the 2001 AUMF was approved.
Two key differences exist between Nixon’s misuse of war powers and their misuse today. The first is a lack of will on the part of Congress to check the president’s power. There is also no clear outlet by which the American people can voice their collective displeasure due to the secretive nature of the War on Terror. Americans cannot weigh in on an issue if they’re largely unaware of its existence. While Vietnam was central in American voters’ minds, wars today are so small and, in some cases, so secretive that it is incredibly difficult for many citizens to name most of the countries in which the United States is fighting. Congress is not doing much better: Several senators were caught off-guard when four troops in Niger were killed in October 2017, painfully illustrating Congress’ inadequacy in monitoring military deployments.
It is clear that the 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force must be repealed. However, the Executive Branch of the United States government still needs clear and defined guidelines to prosecute an ongoing war. At this point, a full and immediate pull-out of all current U.S. areas of operation would be as disastrous as staying the course; the power vacuums the United States would leave in its wake would cause even greater difficulties in the future. An effective replacement to the 2001 AUMF will make the United States focus on the wars it needs to fight, pull out of the wars it does not, severely limit the ability of any president to unilaterally enter into new conflict zones, and ensure that there is a continuous and lively debate about the role of the military in the United States’ foreign policy.
An effective AUMF replacement will require several changes. First, a sunset clause must be enacted. This will require future debate and will prevent any one party leader in Congress from driving the process or a veto by any future president. Second, it must clearly define a list of actors engaged in terrorist activities that threaten the United States or its allies. Third, once those initial groups are defined, there must be a mechanism by which Congress, not the president, must authorize additional groups. Fourth, it must force the withdrawal of forces approved under the AUMF and trigger a reexamination of where they are deployed. Fifth, any military action which lasts longer than 24 hours, involves more than 50 soldiers, or utilizes more than two drones should require congressional approval. An operation that takes place below these thresholds must be presented to Congress upon completion.
Failure to comply with these requirements would result in the immediate dissolution of all future and current operations. As a result, new authorizations would have to submitted and approved. There must be a balance between the type of military tactics necessary to combat an evolving enemy and the oversight Congress must have over these operations. This proposed framework acknowledges the fact that Congress has shown little ability or motivation to modify or overturn the AUMF. The power of lawmakers to nullify military deployments must be explicit within the text, thus requiring the president to strictly adhere to it.
War in the twenty-first century is a mosaic of interrelated conflicts that creates blind spots, thus making it very difficult for any person or group to maintain proper oversight. What cannot be confusing to the American people is that the power to make war rests in the hands of their chosen representatives in Congress – not the president. Unfortunately, Congress seems to be doing the opposite, as the Corker-Kaine 2018 Authorized Use of Military Force demonstrates. It seeks to expand the president’s power to wage indefinite wars. The resolution has not yet passed and there is still time rewrite the bill into something that will make the United States fight in a more thoughtful manner: a resolution that will repeal the 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force and replace it with a resolution that will bring clarity and oversight to the United States’ future military engagements.
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Oliver Lopez-Gomez is an M.A. student of International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests include U.S. Foreign Policy, Russia, and Latin America.