US Congress takes step to clip wings of presidents to wage ‘forever wars’

House of Representatives voted to repeal the 'Authorisation for Use of Military Force' with as many as 49 Republicans voting for the measure.

US House of Representatives
Three Resolutions pertaining to India were introduced in the House of Representatives of the United States Congress in the last two weeks | Pic: iStock

The last word on the subject has not been said but for the first time and after three attempts in the last two years, the 2002 legal authorisation for the war in Iraq might finally get into the history books. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted 268 to 161 to repeal the Authorisation for Use of Military Force – AUMF – with as many as 49 Republicans voting for the measure and a lone Democrat against it.

If this succeeds it is seen as a forerunner to take a step in getting rid of also the 2001 Authorisation that came into force some three days after the terror attacks on America in September 2001 to go after Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.

The repeal of the Iraq authorisation is expected to see light in the Senate next week when the Foreign Relations Committee chaired by Bob Menendez takes up the issue, and the Majority Leader Chuck Schumer saying that he is keen on bringing it to the Senate floor for a vote.

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Whether he has 60 votes to do this is another story. But for the first time in many years, a person is sitting in the White House, President Joseph Biden, who believes that legal authority to remain in Iraq is no longer needed.

In 2002 Biden was one of the 77 senators who voted for the Iraq AUMF; he was in the distinguished company of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards, all of whom were seen as potential candidates in the presidential fray of 2004 and perhaps worried as being perceived as “weak” on issues of national security if they had voted otherwise.

In one of his first retractions, Biden said in 2005: “It was a mistake to assume the president would use the authority we gave him properly.” But that did not stop Democratic candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren along with Pete Buttigieg to hammer away at Biden for his Iraq vote in the course of the 2020 campaigning.  

The problem with the 2002 AUMF and the one preceding that in 2001 for Afghanistan is that the chief executives sitting in the Oval Office have taken the operational clauses in congressional languages to mean a blank cheque to carry on foreign wars and operations.

It has been argued that administrations in Washington – Republican and Democratic – had a maxim that the United States is a “battlefield in the war on terror” and hence could go after American citizens within the country, including using it as a cover for extrajudicial killings of American citizens overseas through drone attacks. One count is that since the AUMF Afghanistan of 2001, administrations have used it to justify more than 40 operations in as many as 19 countries, arguing that the provisions applied to “associated forces” of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

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Many maintain that the 2002 AUMF itself was based on clumsy and shabby intelligence or outright lies – that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that intelligence agents from Iraq had a meeting in Prague, with one of the terrorists involved in 9/11. Officially speaking the war in Iraq ended in 2011, but US administrations have used the pretext of the 2002 AUMF for re-sending troops to Iraq, Syria or “elsewhere” in the name of addressing threats, principally from ISIS. President Donald Trump even went to the extreme step of saying that the 2002 Iraq AUMF authorised the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

President Biden may not have been in the corridors of Washington politics during the heady days of the Vietnam War but many have not forgotten the circumstances behind the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August 7, 1964, that authorised President Johnson to take any measures to maintain international peace and security in Southeast Asia. Fifty-seven years later there is still no definitive word on what exactly happened on the dark and rainy night when USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy were supposed to have come under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. President Johnson himself expressed reservations privately – once saying that “for all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there…”; and at another time telling a State Department official “… those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish”.  

But the Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave Johnson all he wanted to wage an aggressive war, which was continued by President Richard Nixon until such time Congress overrode a presidential veto to bring about the War Powers Act of 1973. The Vietnam War finally ended in 1975 but not before America had squandered hundreds of billions of dollars and some 59,000 of its soldiers returning home in body bags. In the case of Iraq, the costs are still being calculated on a war that few in the Bush administration would accept was fought for unknown or undetermined reasons.

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For Democratic congresswoman like Barbara Lee of California who voted against the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 and now spearheads the movement to repeal the 2002 Iraq authorisation, the political battle has just begun. The Senate Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell argued that repealing the provision would not solve the terrorist threat to America. “The fact of the matter is the legal and practical application of the 2002 AUMF extends far beyond the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And tossing it aside without answering real questions about our ongoing efforts in the region is reckless,” McConnell said. To some others, Congress needs to reassert its constitutional duty under Article 1 to determine when America goes to war.

Formerly a senior journalist in Washington, DC covering North America and the United Nations, the author is currently a Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the College of Science and Humanities, SRM Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai.