Congress should focus on AUMF

By Daniel DePetris

At approximately 10 a.m. this past Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held one of the most consequential public hearings that the panel has scheduled so far this year. The topic: “Reviewing Congressional Authorizations for the Use of Military Force.” The goal: Attempting to establish a bipartisan consensus towards the U.S. Congress reclaiming the powers of war and peace.

Whether or not the committee succeeded in meeting that objective is less important than the fact that Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (R- Md.) decided to schedule the hearing in the first place— a decision that comes after months of groveling from both sides of the aisle that the legislative branch has delegated too much war-making authority to the executive.

In their respective opening statements, Sens. Corker and Cardin both expressed a concern that many of us have long had: not only have the American people’s elected representatives been dodging the issue of authorizing the use of force, but the entire country would be better off if Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill actually followed the concepts codified in the Constitution. “I have always believed it’s important for Congress to express its constitutional role to authorize the use of force,” Corker told the panel, “and that our country is better off if Congress clearly authorizes the wars we fight.” Cardin was in perfect agreement, stating that “this [authorizing force] is one of the most important responsibilities that we have…we can’t run away from this responsibility.”

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Congress has done ever since the 2001 authorization for the use of military force was passed and signed by then-President George W. Bush a week after the 9/11 attacks. 

Between then and now, the United States has executed special operations missions, training-and-advising operations, combat, and air strikes in roughly seven countries across two continents against terrorist organizations that didn’t even exist when the September 11 attacks occurred. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Al-Qaeda affiliates and associated forces in Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and Libya have all been on Washington’s radar in one way or another under the legal justification that each and every single group is an extension of Osama bin Laden’s original network and is therefore included in the 2001 AUMF. There is no need for a national debate or a new war resolution, the argument goes, because the authorization that was passed over fifteen years ago is all of the sufficient congressional authority he needs to manage the war on terrorism.

That argument, of course, is a little too convenient. While there is no question whatsoever that there are legitimate and genuine differences of opinion between and among Republicans and Democrats about war power in general and the terms of an AUMF specifically, the thread tying all of those differences together is politics. 

From a purely political standpoint, it’s far safer for members to pass the buck and hand all of the responsibility for dealing an armed conflict to the president and his national security team rather than be a proactive participant in the debate, and run the risk of political blowback after casting a controversial vote. To call it political cowardice may be too strong of a phrase, but it’s not too far off from the reality. If it’s not cowardice, then surely it’s dereliction of duty.

One hopes that the Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday morning will be the beginning of a new road. The legislative branch is infamous for being sclerotic. It usually takes a significant period of time for the House and Senate to adapt to changing circumstances or adopt something as monumentally important as a new war resolution. Only during a national security or economic crisis do lawmakers suddenly discover the ability to act cooperatively with one another. The 2001 AUMF, to take one example, was passed through both chambers on the same day after only a few hours of debate. That’s virtually unheard of in today’s political climate, when every piece of legislation that is filed and almost every program that is introduced is a punching-bag for one constituency or another.

Sens. Corker and Cardin, however, have a unique opportunity to get the ball rolling on a new AUMF as it pertains to three-year and counting war against the Islamic State. The pair has worked very well together in the past, and they lead one of the few bipartisan committees on Capitol Hill that is left standing. Now that both have taken the temperature of their colleagues on the Foreign Relations Committee, the diagnosis is quite clear: serious Republican and Democrat senators want to start chipping away at the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches that has grown to a chasm over the last decade and a half. Corker and Cardin have it within their power to bring America’s representatives in Washington back into the game.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on June 23, 2017. Read more HERE