Representative Barbara Lee. (photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Passed by Congress 19 years ago, the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, along with the 2002 AUMF, is still being used to justify wars that have not made us, or the world, safer.
More Americans have now died from COVID-19 than from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Yet the United States is poised to continue spending more money on the Pentagon than the next 10 countries combined, with some 1 million troops deployed in about 175 countries. In other words, there’s no end in sight for our forever wars.
Monday marks the 19th anniversary of the vote to pass the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, a blank check to deploy U.S. military personnel anywhere in the world in the name of going after terrorists. Our country’s response to that attack has had unintended and tragic consequences: war profiteering by military contractors, traumatic impact to our soldiers, and massive numbers of refugees and civilian casualties around the world.
And the high cost of waging these wars has diverted our resources and energy away from dealing with grave threats to our national security—for example, infectious diseases and the climate crisis, which is responsible for disasters, like the West Coast wildfires, that are killing more Americans every year.
Under the auspices of two laws that are now nearly 20 years old, the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, the United States is militarily engaged in 80 countries, outside of the public eye and with little congressional oversight. The past four years have seen the Trump administration cite these laws as the legal justification to assassinate a foreign government official and take us to the brink of war with Iran, expand the U.S. military footprint in the African continent and indefinitely occupy eastern Syria.
Yet the past four years have also seen a growing recognition in Congress that—in order to rein in our excessive and reckless war-making—we must repeal these laws and reclaim the legislative branch’s sole constitutional authority to declare war. Last year, that momentum culminated with the House of Representatives passing my amendments to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in the defense appropriations bill and National Defense Authorization Act, respectively.
Continuing to build on the momentum, the House Appropriations Committee recently passed my amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF 245 days after enactment of the legislation providing Congress ample time to debate and vote on any new authorization. Keeping this pressure on the Trump administration is not only important to show that Congress will guard against the president’s ability to escalate endless war during his remaining time in office—it also helps frame the debate for a potential Biden administration.
Another important development that serves to frame future action is the Democratic platform committee’s adoption of the Democratic platform. As a member of the platform drafting committee, I supported language acknowledging the widespread agreement within our party that we must repeal these decades-old authorizations, and that a replacement must be within a narrow and specific framework.
A framework must clearly define who we are at war with and where, must have a time limit and must have strict reporting requirements to Congress. Anything short of that would represent dangerous backsliding and another failure to reassert Congress’ role as a coequal branch of government.
These parameters are crucial. For far too long, Congress has relied on the executive branch to tell us what does and does not constitute war, and that has led to our entanglement in conflicts from Yemen to Niger to the Philippines, at the cost of the lives of U.S. service members and hundreds of thousands of civilians.
It is clear to me that 20 years of endless war have led to massive levels of civilian harm, environmental destruction and militarization of our own and other societies around the world—not to mention an expansion of the number and influence of violent groups and conflict since these wars began. Let’s make sure the public can be a part of this reckoning.
The current public awakening in response to the dual crises of a global pandemic and systemic racial injustices have exposed the gross inequity and institutionalized violence in our society. It also makes clear that we must reconceptualize how we build security both at home and abroad to uphold the well-being and dignity of all people. Endless war has not made us, or the world, safer.
Now is the time for Congress, and eventually the White House, to reckon with this reality, focus on broad reforms to end our government’s ability to do harm in the world—such as by repealing the AUMFs and publicly debating any future use of military force—and finally reimagine what tools we employ to confront the threats of the 21st century.