Although we’ve been in armed combat for 226 years of our 243-year history (REALLY!), the last time Congress actually made a formal declaration of war was in 1942, when FDR thought it improper to engage in hostilities against Axis-allied Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania without one. Subsequent American presidents have been less squeamish about using military force without formal declarations and after the 9/11 attack in 2001, Congress handed their power over war to the Bush administration with the “Authorization for Use of Military Force ” (AUMF), which was specifically directed to strike back at Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces and to wage war in Afghanistan. This became a free pass for three presidents to oversee 18 years of continuous undeclared combat. Here’s the original invitation to our endless war party to refer to.
The 1st AUMF – 2001: Joint Resolution
To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States. (Specifically referencing 9/11 attack)
Whereas, on September 11, 2001, acts of treacherous violence were committed against the United States and its citizens; and
Whereas, such acts render it both necessary and appropriate that the United States exercise its rights to self-defense and to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad; and
Whereas, in light of the threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by these grave acts of violence; and
Whereas, such acts continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States; and
Whereas, the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States…
This AUMF was signed by President George W. Bush on September 18, 2001. Only Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), who was braver than everybodyelse in the room, voted “NO“, noting that S.J. Res. 23 – “Authorization for Use of Military Force” had no clear ending, forming, in fact, a possible blank check to wage war forever without debate from Congress. She was prescient in calling out that war based on revenge causes only destruction that breeds more violence and more terrorists.
She has tried several times to stop the AUMF, but 18 years later, it has been used by three successive presidents to justify military action around the world, including Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, and Yemen. Our soldiers have been returning in flag-draped coffins from wars that have never been properly authorized or been publicly debated.
According to a 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service, the AUMF had been cited 37 times in connection with actions in 14 countries and on the high seas. The report stated that “Of the 37 occurrences, 18 were made during the Bush Administration, and 18 have been made during the Obama Administration.” This awesome map from Brown University’s Costs of War Project and the Smithsonian shows the extent of our military excursions.
Terms to know – War Powers Resolution of 1973: Trump sent Congress a letter detailing all the deployments of US armed forces, consistent with the War Powers Resolution (WPR), a federal law that’s supposed to stop a president from entering into armed conflicts without the consent of Congress. The WPR requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a Congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or a declaration of war by the United States.
Where are we now? We are currently fighting in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger, using both the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) stated legal authorities for the armed conflict against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, associated forces, and, since August 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS), the president’s Article II commander-in-chief power, and his “constitutional and statutory authority to conduct the foreign relations of the United States.”
Afghanistan: Not only did the concept of the AUMF itself morph beyond this country’s benighted borders, the original mission changed far beyond what was authorized by Congress. In an article by Colonel Daniel L. Davis after surveying 8 provinces, he wrote “How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding? “ The 18 years spent there has resulted in no proof that the time, money and the lives of American soldiers has achieved the goal of keeping the US safe from future terror threats. The new government is still unable to provide basic services outside the capital, allowing for a Taliban recovery.
Iraq – the 2nd AUMF: It started with an invasion based on a lie – that Sadam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he was harboring Al Quada. In 2002, Bush-II convinced Congress to enact an AUMF authorizing military force to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein, an in-and-out mission that destroyed a government in violation of internation law with no thought to the subsequent collapse of Iraqi institutions. The resulting insurgency and civil war led to the Second Iraq War and U.S. military operations that continue in Iraq to the present day. Although the Iraqi government claimed victory a year ago, ISIS has developed into an insurgency again that could regain its fighting strength and retake territory. The 2002 AUMF has also been used as the legal justification of the American military presence in Syria.
Libya: In 2011, the Obama administration joined in with a NATO operation to help save civilians in Benghazi that morphed into overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi. They argued that asking Congress for approval wasn’t required as U.S. actions “do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.” So bombing was OK, as it wasn’t “war-y” enough. Per the ACLU“In essence, the Obama administration narrowed the definition of hostilities virtually out of existence where airstrikes are concerned. As legal scholars warned at the time, this was legally wrong but could set a dangerous precedent. And so it did. (with Trump in Yemen)” Obama said later that not planning to help Libya recover after Qaddafi’s regime was one of his biggest errors
US: And in ACLU v. NSA the AUMF has also been cited by the Department of Justice as its authority for engaging in electronic surveillance of Americans without obtaining a warrant form the special court as required by both law and the Constitution. The AUMF says nothing about electronic surveillance, and the Senate majority leader at the time, Tom Daschle, noted that the drafters of the AUMF specifically considered and rejected language giving the president additional domestic powers.
Syria: In 2014, Obama launched air strikes against ISIS forces in Syria, one month after starting airstrikes in neighboring Iraq. In 2015 the first 50 American ground troops entered the country as advisors for Syrian soldiers. In 2017, under Trump, David J. Trachtenberg, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, correctly claimed the 2001 AUMF “authorizes the United States to use force against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces,” but then incorrectly stated that it also permitted actions “against ISIS.” The Islamic State didn’t exist for a full decade after the passage of the 2001 AUMF and so clearly did not authorize military action against them. He also claimed that the 2002 AUMF permitted us “to assist the government of Iraq both in the fight against ISIS, and in stabilizing Iraq following the destruction of ISIS’s so-called caliphate.” This activity, which is essentially nation-building, was not authorized by Congress. “Even using the wildest interpretations possible, no AUMF has ever authorized the U.S. government to assist the government of another country to fight internal battles, authorize military operations against ISIS supporters worldwide, and obligated the U.S. to restore basic services to cities throughout the Middle East. Even more critical, the conditions necessary to end our involvement are virtually impossible to attain.”
In 2018, Trump signing off on missile strikes in Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad for allegedly carrying out recent chemical attacks against civilians there using the 2001 AUMF. Or maybe the 2002 AUMF. Actually neither really fit, so Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that he believed Article II alone was the basis: “As our commander in chief, the president has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests. The United States has an important national interest in averting a worsening catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons.”
Yemen: Congress became alarmed at the amount of civilian casualties in Yemen (over 1700!), especially after a Saudi air strike killed 40 kids with one of our missiles. They tried to stop our involvement with a bill called the Yemen resolution, that didn’t specify which Saudi hostilities must be stopped. The Trump administration is now similarly claiming that we can continue to help the Saudis turn a country into a graveyard, as our “support” for the Saudi-led coalition hasn’t been defined as “hostilities.” But just in case, as long as we are obstensibly chasing terrorists of some kind, our own use of force in Yemen is considered authorized under the AUMF.
Iran: The Trump administration , with fellow warhawk and draft-dodger John Bolton, are signaling that they’re thinking of claiming that the AUMF “may now provide a legal rationale for striking Iranian territory or proxies…(it) might apply “if the facts show Iran or any other nation is harboring al Qaeda…the Times piece basically suggests that, if President Trump wanted to, he could invoke the AUMF to start a war with Iran—and he could do it tomorrow.” Military strikes against Iran would be a huge, and catastrophic escalation with unforeseeable consequences. Iranians are going on record to ask the US to stop meddling with regime change and let them determine their own destiny.
Venezuela: The US has a long history of interfering in Latin America and South America for our own financial gain, the live results of our destabilizing exploits in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, are now living in tent cities on both sides of our southern border. Trump is now threatening to intervene militarily in Venezuela to overthrow the current government and install one that he favors, possibly by labeling it a state sponsor of terrorism. This is exactly the kind of unilateral presidential adventurism that the War Powers Act was enacted to prevent.
As a side helping of irony, Trump is being aided in his plans by his envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, who was linked to the 2002 failed coup attempt against the late Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez and was convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal. He was later pardoned. Despite the devastating long-term harm caused by past U.S. interventions in Latin America, we’re getting ready to start again unless Congress decides to stop it.
Have we won yet?
This end-run around considered debate has been in existence for 18 years, continuing to erode the perogative of Congress and the rule of law. They make it easier for presidents to “do something” in response to outrages abroad, but they haven’t contained the spread of terrorism, nor made America safer. Their first targets, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, still exist in Afghanistan. And with every military mission, we make more enemies. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, who wrote the exposé on Afghanistan, wrote:
“…(We) have initiated or expanded the use of armed drone attacks in many countries; conducted an unknown number of covert military operations; trained numerous foreign armies (some of which have subsequently been accused of war crimes or have fought against our interests); provided arms and ammunition to rebel groups or governments engaged in wars; conducted airstrikes against targets in many countries; carried out controversial night raids and “snatch-and-grab” operations, and other such actions. What have we purchased for this extraordinary application of lethal military power around the world?
Terrorism has now risen to become a major national and global problem. Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya – where we conducted overt military operations – continue to suffer under civil war-like conditions or in near-anarchy. Millions have been made homeless and hundreds of thousands killed. Violent extremist groups have spilled over the border from Afghanistan and threaten the viability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
In every measurable way, despite the enormous use of lethal military force, the national and global security environment for the United States continues deteriorating, increasing the risk to our country. And yet there is a large cohort of pundits and opinion leaders who argue that the solution to this deteriorating security condition is the application of yet more violence. Many are advocating airstrikes, increased drone activity, deployment of more US military advisors, and the expanded use of covert operations in locations around the world. That is akin to proposing the best way to put out a raging house fire is to douse it with kerosene.’
Says Hossein Askari, from George Washinton University, “America is manufacturing enemies in the thousands and enemies beget more enemies through descendants, friendships, indoctrination and demonstrations. As enemies grow and fan out in the world, the U.S. is likely to use more military power, sell more lethal arms, support harsher dictators to suppress its enemies and those opposed to its client states, making matters even worse. This is not a sustainable policy and will in the end destroy what is good about the United States. The United States will become more insular, disengage from the world, clamp down on domestic freedoms, sow divisions among its own citizens and taint its democratic institutions. It is time for America to rethink its role in the world and employ its democratic ideals as its moral compass.”
Summary of effects from Costs of War
Over 480,000 people have died due to direct war violence, including armed forces on all sides of the conflicts, contractors, civilians, journalists, and humanitarian workers.
It is likely that many times more have died indirectly in these wars, due to malnutrition, damaged infrastructure, and environmental degradation.
244,000 civilians have been killed in direct violence by all parties to these conflicts.
Over 6,950 US soldiers have died in the wars.
We do not know the full extent of how many US service members returning from these wars became injured or ill while deployed.
Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been reported as required by law, but it is likely that at least 7,800 have been killed.
21 million Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, and Syrian people are living as war refugees and internally displaced persons, in grossly inadequate conditions.
The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 76 countries, vastly expanding the counterror war across the globe.
The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad.
The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades with some costs, such as the financial costs of US veterans’ care, not peaking until mid-century.
US government funding of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has totaled over $170 billion. Most of those funds have gone towards arming security forces in both countries. Much of the money allocated to humanitarian relief and rebuilding civil society has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.
The cost of the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria wars totals about $5.9 trillion. This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars, which will add an estimated $8 trillion in the next 40 years.
Compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq. Some of those alternatives are still available to the US.
- America has been at war 93% of the time – 222 out of 239 years – since 1776. (global research) (freakonomics)
- This month marks 25 years the US has been at War in Iraq. A region at war, a rash of terrorist attacks, and the worst refugee crisis since World War II: These are the legacies of America’s quarter-century-and-counting war in Iraq. (Foreign Policy in Focus)
- Why long wars no longer generate a backlash at home (foreignaffairs)
- America’s Forever Wars (NYTimes)
- Presidential references to the 2001 AUMF (Congressional Research Service)
- The 2002 Iraq AUMF almost certainly authorizes the president to use force today in Iraq (Lawfare)
- Why authorization to use military force is so important (The Hill)
- US at war in seven countries (Defense One)
- Map of current U.S. Counterterror War Locations (WatsonInstitute)
- Costs of War (WatsonInstitute)
- About that trial balloon on using the 9/11 AUMF to authorize US strikes on Iran (just security)
- Trump, in risky gambit, ratchets up pressure on Venezuela as tensions flare at the border (Wapo)