Editorial: Repeal the AUMFs

It may surprise many Americans to know that the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Iraq — legislation signed by President George W. Bush on Oct. 16, 2002 — remains the law of the land, as does an AUMF from 1991 that paved the way for the first Persian Gulf War and the 2001 AUMF that precipitated the invasion of Afghanistan.

Congress recently squandered another opportunity to repeal those laws, choosing to discard amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act prior to its passage on Dec. 15. But with a broad bipartisan coalition in support, and the backing of the White House, the 118th Congress should make rescinding these “zombie” AUMFs a policy priority this year.

The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the ability to declare war but, since 1942, federal lawmakers have not exerted that authority. Instead, they have shifted responsibility to the executive branch by approving military deployments through authorization legislation, and then shaping engagements through oversight and appropriations.

That has led to a significant and meandering evolution of federal authority in how the country conducts military operations abroad. While the president retains power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces to mobilize the military when necessary, the founders saw the importance of giving Congress — and by extension, the public — final say over any sustained war effort.

There is wisdom in that distinction. The deployment of American forces should be a solemn and serious undertaking, and one given careful consideration by citizens through their elected representatives.

It is the public, after all, that will be asked to foot the costs of a war effort, a bill that includes care for the service members being placed in harm’s way. These are not decisions to be taken lightly and that need broad, sustained popular support to succeed.

For the last 30 years, however, the executive branch has been allowed to pursue military engagements without the assent of Congress, relying on dated AUMF legislation as legal justification for a wide array of pursuits.

The 2001 AUMF, for instance, is the foundation for the global war on terror. Passed a week after Sept. 11, it authorized the president to act against “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” Due to its lack of geographic boundaries and open-ended language, it has been used by administrations of both parties to justify operations in at least 19 countries since its passage. President Barack Obama used the 2001 AUMF to justify air operations in Libya, for instance.

The 2002 AUMF granted the Bush administration authority to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”

It paved the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power. But it has also been used by subsequent administrations, both Democratic and Republican, to pursue operations in Syria (Obama again, in 2016) and by the Trump administration to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, in 2020.

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is among those lawmakers who believe that repealing these open-ended measures should be a national imperative. He has repeatedly sponsored legislation to do just that, only to see them pushed aside — even as a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has voiced its support.

“By failing to repeal outdated and unnecessary AUMFs, Congress is abdicating its responsibility to provide oversight over military action and leaving these war authorizations subject to abuse,” Kaine said in an October statement.

Repealing these measures — the 1991, 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, along with a 1957 AUMF allowing the president free hand to use military forces in the Middle East — would help restore the balance of war powers in Washington and foster debate about ongoing military commitments that the country needs.

Given that lawmakers of both parties agree, and knowing that President Joe Biden supports repeal, following through should be an attainable goal this year.