By Solomon Bennett
In the wake of the attacks by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush responded by requesting an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) from Congress which provided the president with the power to “to deter and preempt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” Congress rejected this ambiguous language with the expectation that the Bush administration and future administrations should return to Congress in order to authorize further uses of military force. Congress instead passed an AUMF with an ostensibly more limited scope, which provided the president with the power to use “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.” Since then, the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify the use of force in several countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya, resulting in a global “war on terror” which has cost 6.4 trillion dollars and countless lives. The power of the executive has always been significant in American foreign policymaking, but its ability to shape foreign affairs seemingly unchecked has defined the past two decades and inspired a call for a new foreign policy vision underscored by power in restraint through effective legislative authority and renewed diplomatic engagement with the world.
On September 30, 2011, President Barack Obama ordered a lethal drone strike against American citizen and al-Qaeda affiliate Anwar al-Aulaqi in Yemen. Soon after, al-Aulaqi’s sixteen-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi was killed in a separate strike—incidental collateral damage, according to U.S. officials. These strikes occurred against the backdrop of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force which, according to the Justice Department memorandum, provided the necessary legal justification: “the AUMF applies with respect to forces ‘associated with’ al-Qaida that are engaged in hostilities against the U.S. …and a decision-maker could reasonably conclude that the AQAP forces of which al-Aulaqi is a leader are ‘associated with’ al Qaida forces for purposes of the AUMF.” In a speech at Northwestern University School of Law, former Attorney General Eric Holder emphasizes this position, suggesting that Congress has authorized the president to use force against the continuing threat of “al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces…” So long as a group may be characterized as an “associated force,” the president effectively has the power to wage light-footprint warfare in any number of countries with little reckoning.
Yet not once does the 2001 AUMF mention the words “associated forces.” In fact, while the language has been exploited to expand its scope, the document is explicit with regard to whom the use of force is authorized against. In the case of Syria, for example, while they are derivatives of the militia group which adopted the title of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004, neither the Islamic State nor the Nusra Front had “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” Certain Islamic State members who were associated with al-Qaeda at the time or involved in the attacks of September 11 may be covered by the 2001 AUMF, but subsequent members and the groups as a whole, which did not exist in 2001, are likely not.
The 1973 War Powers Act, passed at the end of the Vietnam War, requires the president obtain authorization from Congress for the use of force in hostilities lasting more than sixty days with a thirty-day removal period, but it also raises the question of what kind of accountability exists for conflicts lasting under that time period.
Furthermore, if the blanket use of force in Syria, for example, is not authorized by the 2001 AUMF, then it is also in violation of the timeframe put forward by the War Powers Act. The Obama administration expanded executive power and weakened the War Powers Act during the 2011 bombing intervention in Libya, issuing a statement which argued that the War Powers Act did not require authorization for the campaign in Libya given that it involved “unusually limited” military force which offered “limited exposure for U.S. troops and limited risk of serious escalation and employs limited military means.” This precedent weakens Congressional accountability over light-footprint warfare in the context of the 2001 AUMF and builds on an interpretation which effectively allows the president to intervene in hostilities given adequate regional instability. After the U.S. and allied intervention in Libya and the ousting of its leader Muammar Gaddafi, the country has since descended into civil war with a lucrative market for smuggling and slave trade.
In 2019, Congress passed a War Powers Resolution for the first time in U.S. history, calling on President Donald Trump to cease military aid and U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war alongside a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which is being fought against Yemeni Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The war has resulted in a brutal humanitarian disaster with 10 million people on the brink of famine and nearly 100,000 casualties. President Trump promptly vetoed this resolution despite maintaining that the primary reason for U.S. involvement is counterterrorism under the 2001 AUMF, green-lighting the perpetuation of a dire conflict that the United States need not exacerbate in order to maintain credible negotiating leverage.
In early 2020, President Trump issued a further indictment of executive power, electing to kill General Qassim Suleimani, the most powerful figure within Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. This strike was directed under the pretext that Suleimani had aided various militant Shiite groups in the region, despite his being a state official of a country that the U.S. was not at war with. After withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear deal, this strike was a major escalation, if not an outright act of war. Congress responded by passing a resolution prohibiting the president from ordering any additional offensive strikes against Iran.
War is indeed too serious a decision to leave in the hands of any one individual. Threats to national security have become more dynamic and less regulated by state borders, meaning the president certainly requires some flexibility to be able to respond quickly to imminent threats. But Congress must reclaim its authority in matters of war by reassessing the U.S.’sUnited States’ counterterrorism role in the Middle East and repealing the 2001 AUMF, tying future AUMFs or military strikes to appropriations so as to make them accountable, and creating a revitalized War Powers Act. The U.S. must redefine its foreign policy as one defined by robust diplomatic engagement and realistic military restraint in the world.
Solomon Bennett is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This essay was an honorable mention in the 2020 John Quincy Adams Society/The National Interest student foreign policy essay contest.