Skip to content

Authorization for Use of Military Force

AUMF

A couple of weeks ago I teased that I had a subject or two ruminating in my little brain just waiting to leap out to the public abyss. But on that day I was really mad at the President for any number of reasons (and honestly, so much has happened I could not begin to remember what it was specifically that had me so irate) so my ‘Voter ID Laws Are Really Voter Suppression Laws and You Should Pay Attention’ soliloquy turned into a lengthy and sarcastic diatribe. If you do not know me well, then you did not find it funny. If you do know me – well you might have laughed.

So tonight’s post is all about edification. I promise. This is the bi – partisan, “I’m not sure if you know about this, and I think it’s important so I am going to share it with you” post. And it is possible, although I cannot guarantee that I’ll get through the entire conversation without discussing the President. Intrigued?

Tonight’s topic is: War. Who gets to declare it?

If you were an adult on 9/11, then no doubt you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you learned of the attacks. I was in my fifth month of working at ING in Des Moines and had just returned from Kansas. My uncle had passed away unexpectedly and so the family had come back from several states to attend the funeral. It had been stressful and I remember being relieved to be back at work.

Our manager gathered the team together to let us know that the first plane had flown into the World Trade Center. At that point, no one knew whether it was an accident or an orchestrated event and in 2001 the internet was not as prolific as it is today. We were asked to stay offline as much as possible in order to “keep traffic to a minimum during business hours” and to go back to work. Not long after the initial announcement came the next.

There were gasps and a bit of panic on the floor; obviously, people did not understand what had happened and while we were not in a tall building, we were close to the Principal in downtown Des Moines. So there were genuine fears that the United States was under attack and that any tall building might be next. My manager then heard of the crash at the Pentagon and she immediately became concerned about a family member (I believe her brother). For several hours, she had no idea of his fate.

When I heard about the second plane, I stood up and said a prayer. And then I added this: “Please God, don’t let it be a white nationalist. Let it be a foreigner.” It may sound strange and even surprising to hear this come from me. But remember, it had only been six years since Timothy McVeigh pulled his truck in front of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, jumped out and watched it explode ripping the façade and killing 168 people including 19 kids, injuring over 500. His motive? He hated the government. He blamed the FBI and the ATF for Ruby Ridge and Waco; and decided that he’d enact revenge by attacking the federal government. So on September 11, 2001 one of the first thoughts that entered my head was, “please God do not let this be an American.”

Looking back, we may have been better off if 9/11 had been home grown terrorism. We did not know it then – it would take years to learn that Osama bin Laden’s entire strategy was to attack the United States in order to lure us into a war against Islam. In attacking the homeland, he hoped to instigate a global war: western civilization against all of Islam. That narrative fit his world view and his teaching of Koran. That was bin Laden’s message. He attacked the United States to provoke us to wage war against him and he gambled that in doing so, we would wage war against Islamic countries. And he kind of won the bet.

Now we are at the topic: “War; Who gets to declare it?”

Well the answer is: Congress. Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution (and yes Mom, I had to look this up). Congress gets to declare war. The President is the civilian Commander in Chief, Congress declares war AND controls the purse strings. Now you probably knew the answer right away and you knew it because in the back of your mind you remember FDR’s famous “day of infamy” speech given to a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941 when he asked the House and Senate for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. I would have to check, but I believe that both houses passed the resolution unanimously. Of course, then Germany declared war on the United States and then we declared war on Germany. There was a lot of paperwork.

Declarations of War are important because they trigger certain elements of international law; elements related trade, commerce, communication, diplomacy, protection of foreign nationals abroad, prisoners of war, etc. Declarations of War might also trigger specific measures within the homeland, like martial law or a suspension of habeas corpus. During World War II, the fact that Congress had declared war allowed FDR to impose a war time economy which frankly, was very much a planned economy. Production was directed from above. Consumption was rationed. If you have not heard stories from your grandparents or read journals, you really should. Flour, sugar, and rubber were just a few of the commodities that were rationed during the war. And several of these items were not taken off the list until well after the conflict ended. My Dad has a picture of himself at two years old, sitting on the old H tractor that his father (my grandpa) purchased in 1946. It had steel tires (or wheels?) with spikes. I am not sure how long it was before they were able to switch to rubber, but when that tractor was purchased, the wheels were steel.

Does anyone remember when Congress declared war on al Qaeda? What about the declaration of war against Iraq? Afghanistan? How about the declarations of war against Libya or Syria? We’ve exerted force in those countries, right? We’ve deployed soldiers and men and women have died in those countries? Under what legal authority were troops sent and maintained in those nations? Legal authority does really matter – international law matters and so does constitutional law.

Well as it turns out, Congress does not always have to declare war. Sometimes they can authorize use of military force – otherwise known as the AUMF. And on September 14, 2001 the United States Congress passed – almost unanimously (we will get back to that) – an AUMF that authorized the president to use the United States Armed Forces to go after those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001 and any “associated forces.” In short: Congress passed a blank check and according to Wikipedia which says “according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, published May 11, 2016, the 2001 AUMF has been cited 37 times in connection with actions in 14 countries and on the high seas. Of the 37 occurrences, 18 were made during the Bush Administration and 19 have been made during the Obama Administration.” The countries mentioned in the report included: Afghanistan, Cuba (Guantanamo Bay), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Philippines, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

In my posts I tend to write the way I speak and so after I throw out a lot of facts, I like to pause, take a breath and say “Let’s take a couple steps back here and make sure we level set what’s been stated.” We were attacked by a paramilitary unit of 19 foreign nationals with likely ties to Saudi Arabia (yikes) and certainly funded by terrorist organizations. We were absolutely within our rights to defend ourselves on the homeland and to go after those that perpetrated those horrible and vicious crimes against our citizens. And we must be fair – we cannot judge the decisions made by Bush or Obama based on what we know today in 2017. At the time of the attacks, we made decisions based on what we knew.

But I think that everyone reading this post needs to know this: we have been at war since December 2001. That is almost 16 years. We have been at war in Afghanistan for almost 16 years. How is it possible, that my country has been at war for that long and as I look at my extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles, etc – I cannot think of one person that has been personally affected or impacted by it? Now perhaps I’m missing someone – but let’s think back to Vietnam and World War II. Every town and almost every family was somehow affected by one or both of these wars and today, in America’s longest conflict – it passes by without impact except to the people that fight it.

When that resolution passed in 2001, there was single hold out on the House floor. Barbara Lee, Democratic Congresswoman from California was not against going after terrorists. She was against a blank check. I have seen clips from her speech. She connected her opposition to support for the troops. How could she vote for a measure that could effectively end up sending them to battle in perpetuity.

And that’s the real issue here – the real issue that I want folks to understand. In Vietnam, we supposedly learned a lesson. Or at least, that is what I thought I learned in American History class. This little conflict that started in the mid 50s with Ike sending over some “advisors” to help the French take back some of its colonial possessions from the Japanese morphed into a massive military conflict that cost billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives all in an effort to stomp out a nationalist movement with socialist overtones. Wait. A failed effort to stomp out a nationalist movement with socialist overtones. And Congress never declared war. Never. We were supposed to learn a lesson from that experience. Congress was supposed to issue greater oversight. Presidents – both Democratic and Republican – were supposed to yield back some power to Congress while still possessing the ability to “act fast” when circumstances warranted.

How did we get 16 years down the road, expending resources in THIRTEEN different countries without so much as a debate over whether each new fight was the right thing to do? I thought the point of Congressional action was to ensure checks and balances and that when it came to war and peace, that the people weighed in. Congress is our “weigh in” institution but it seems to have abdicated its responsibility here.

Now, Barbara Lee has offered up an amendment every year during the appropriations process (aka – funding)– each and every year – to revoke the AUMF of 2001 and to draft and pass a new one. Her point? Congress is abdicating its responsibility to debate the blood and treasure we are spending on these wars. She is simply asking that we talk about what we are doing in these countries. The resources we extended in Libya had nothing to do with 9/11. The fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria? I do not think that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon gets you from 9/11 to ISIS. Osama bin Laden has been dead for 7 years. Yes, Afghanistan is still a mess, but our being there, has very little to do with “going after those who perpetrated the attacks on 9/11.”

Had I posted this a couple months ago, I may have been more positive about how this debate would play out because Barbara Lee’s amendment this time was passed out of the Appropriations Committee. She has been working on this for over a decade; working with her Republican and Democratic colleagues to understand and agree on the need to debate. In June, her committee agreed with her and she received a standing ovation for her tenacity! (I actually think the timing of their acquiescence is interesting. Both Republicans and Democrats were comfortable letting the 2001 AUMF just renew without concern under Bush and Obama. They were almost in bi-partisan agreement to ‘not worry about it – everything’s under control – we are not concerned about the administration taking advantage of a blank check authorization.” But then, all of a sudden Barbara Lee’s routine amendment gets passed out of committee – during Donald Trump’s first year. Mmmm).

Unfortunately, in late June the Speaker stripped the amendment from the Appropriations bill via the Rules Committee and so it will not be part of the final legislation that is passed later this year. The 2001 AUMF will remain in place.

Again, the danger here is not on a specific party or president. I had these concerns with Bush and Obama. Obama did not seem to have a problem with congressional approval via the AUMF to support a no fly zone in Libya but when Assad launched a chemical attack against his own people and crossed the infamous red line, he wanted Congress to say “okay – we support the use of force.” Inconsistent policy breeds confusion and distrust and allows for partisans to attack on things that should be non-partisan.

So this is something that I think needs to be on our radar. My senator, Chris Murphy is on the Foreign Relations Committee and has talked at length about shutting down the AUMF and getting back to regular order. He has been working with Republicans to gain support within the Senate. It’s interesting because the hesitance is not partisan and the support for repeal is not partisan. I have not yet figured out who wants to repeal and why; who wants to leave as is and why.

A lot goes on in Washington and yes, a lot goes on in Congress. We have been at war for 16 years and many of us would never know it. We have not sacrificed a thing. Our taxes have not been increased to pay the bills and gas prices are still low. We can buy sugar and sugar substitutes with abandon. The war on terror happens “over there” until there’s a lone wolf attack on the homeland and then we talk a lot about banning Muslims to protect Americans. After 16 years of conflict, parts of Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed. Syria is a failed state. Libya is in chaos and millions of refugees have exploded across Europe. These effects are not entirely the fault of the United States – not at all. But it IS the fault of the United States that we choose not to debate the merits of whether to fight these battles. That debate is the only thing that the American voter has to hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions that they make. The impact of the last 16 years has been profound and that impact will be felt for generations. Should we not be fighting under an authorization passed within at least this Congress?

I really thought this post would be shorter. Yikes.

Amy, from the Facebook Archives

%d bloggers like this: