Repeal the President’s Iraq War Powers

It’s been 18 years since the invasion, after all.

A television screen in the control room of ITV broadcasts a live address by then-U.S. President George W. Bush announcing the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in London on Dec. 14, 2003.
A television screen in the control room of ITV broadcasts a live address by then-U.S. President George W. Bush announcing the capture of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in London on Dec. 14, 2003. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

On the evening of March 19, 2003, then-U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the American people in a live broadcast from the Oval Office. “My fellow citizens,” he opened, “at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”

Those words marked the beginning of the Iraq War—one of the United States’ “forever wars” that continues, in one form or another, to this day. At the time, Bush led the United States to believe that a campaign of “shock and awe” would bring the Iraq War to a swift conclusion. But after eight years of fighting, thousands of service member deaths, and an unknown number of civilian casualties, the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens have come to regard the Iraq War as a grave foreign-policy mistake. Although the war formally ended almost a decade ago, the congressional act that sanctioned it—the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)—remains on the books and is subject to continued misuse. Today, on the 18th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we call for the 2002 AUMF to be repealed.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the necessity of the Iraq War, there’s no reason the 2002 AUMF should still be in force today.

First, the 2002 AUMF has outlived its stated purpose: namely, defeating former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. U.S. forces deposed Saddam’s regime shortly after the 2003 invasion, and Saddam himself has been dead since 2006. Moreover, the Obama administration declared an official end to the Iraq War in October 2011. Since then, Iraq has become a close partner of the United States and consistently cooperates with the country on security issues. Since Iraq is a sovereign country, U.S. troops remain there only with the permission of the Iraqi government. There is no basis for continuing to label such an important ally as a threat to the United States or international security.

Additionally, the 2002 AUMF does nothing to keep Americans safe. From December 2011 until September 2014, then-U.S. President Barack Obama did not cite the AUMF in any of the periodic messages he sent to Congress explaining ongoing U.S. military activities around the world. Obama began citing the 2002 AUMF again in September 2014, as the United States commenced airstrikes against the Islamic State—which extended into the Trump era. But even in this case, both the Obama and Trump administrations referred to the 2002 AUMF as mere reinforcement. Administration lawyers pointed to other legal covers for U.S. military activity against the group. Repeal of the 2002 AUMF, then, would leave the United States’ power to combat ongoing threats of terrorism unchanged.

The congressional act that sanctioned the Iraq War remains on the books and is subject to continued misuse.

Finally, the continued existence of the 2002 authorization encourages the executive branch to act unilaterally—that is, without congressional approval—on military action. We need not go too far back in recent memory to see why this is dangerous.

After then-U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the January 2020 assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani—who was in Iraq at the time—his administration argued that the 2002 AUMF reinforced the president’s constitutional authority to order the attack. White House lawyers said that—though the original 2002 AUMF targeted the old, long-deposed Iraqi regime—uses of force under the authorization “need not address threats from the Iraqi Government apparatus only,” and could extend to “militias, terrorist groups, or other armed groups in Iraq.” In short, the Trump administration purported that once a bad actor steps foot in Iraq, he becomes fair game for the U.S. military—simply because Iraq once housed a dictator who was toppled 18 years ago.

This reasoning is, of course, absurd. But it poses a real danger to our relationship with the Iraqi people and their government. Suleimani’s assassination not only risked direct U.S. military confrontation with Iran—a state actor the president should need congressional approval to attack—it also elicited outrage from Iraq, a key Middle East partner. The attack was met with mass protests, condemnation from Iraq’s president, and a vote by Iraq’s parliament to expel U.S. troops from the country. And it could have all been avoided.

In the case of Suleimani, the use of a jaded war authorization to justify a U.S. attack in a country that is now more partner than enemy demonstrates the danger of allowing war authorizations to remain in force beyond their stated purpose. But the tendency to stretch war powers is not unique to Trump. Though Biden has not yet cited the 2002 AUMF to justify his military directives, his Feb. 25 airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria were launched without congressional authorization. It’s clear that the executive branch will continue to stretch its war powers as long as it remains easy to do so. For this reason, we must remain vigilant of presidential circumvention of Congress no matter the occupant of the White House.

The 2002 AUMF has become somewhat of a zombie.

In Washington, the 2002 AUMF has become somewhat of a zombie—an authorization that has long outlived its purpose yet still lurks among U.S. laws and poses a danger to the country’s interests. The House of Representatives has voted twice to repeal the 2002 AUMF, both times to no avail, and each of us has recently introduced legislation in our respective chambers to finally repeal it for good. We have already been joined by a combined 12 Republican co-sponsors, demonstrating that a repeal of the 2002 AUMF can find bipartisan support.

Indeed, 80 percent of current Congress members—including Sen. Tim Kaine—were not in office when the 2002 AUMF was passed, and many of those who were—including Rep. Barbara Lee—were opposed to the authorization from the start. To claim, then, that the 2002 AUMF represents congressional consent for present military action is a farce. Today, 18 years after Bush announced the invasion of Iraq, it is past time to give Congress a renewed say in the matter. We owe it to U.S. troops to ensure military action is in the national interest before Congress continues to send them into harm’s way using outdated justification.

Repealing the 2002 AUMF is a starting point for more foreign-policy reform. After doing away with the 2002 AUMF, we should consider how to address the 2001 AUMF—which was originally passed in the aftermath of 9/11 but has since been used as a carte blanche to justify a wide-ranging “war on terror”—and discuss sunsetting any future AUMFs. We cannot let another 18 years go by without addressing unchecked executive power to authorize military force. One of the many painful lessons of the Iraq War is how grave a threat poorly written AUMFs pose for future abuses.

Tim Kaine is the junior U.S. senator from Virginia. Twitter: @timkaine

Barbara Lee represents California’s 13th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Twitter: @RepBarbaraLee

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