Report

Congress Aims to Nix the Forever War

It’s still unclear if the Senate bill can garner enough Republican votes to pass.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sen. James Risch talks to Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez
Sen. James Risch talks to Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez ahead of a committee hearing in Washington on March 23. Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images

After 20 years of seemingly endless combat, the U.S. Congress is close to clawing back the authority to wage war, following a yearslong struggle to reassert its role in approving military actions abroad. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote as soon as next Tuesday on legislation that would repeal two authorizations to use military force against Iraq that have been in place for decades, according to multiple congressional aides familiar with the matter.

If the bill passes and gets President Joe Biden’s signature, it would mark the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Congress successfully curtailed the president’s war powers authorities.

After 20 years of seemingly endless combat, the U.S. Congress is close to clawing back the authority to wage war, following a yearslong struggle to reassert its role in approving military actions abroad. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote as soon as next Tuesday on legislation that would repeal two authorizations to use military force against Iraq that have been in place for decades, according to multiple congressional aides familiar with the matter.

If the bill passes and gets President Joe Biden’s signature, it would mark the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Congress successfully curtailed the president’s war powers authorities.

Both Republican and Democratic aides said they expected the bill, which would repeal 1991 and 2002 authorizations for use of force against Iraq, to pass out of committee, with the support of Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the committee. From there, the bill, introduced by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine and Republican Sen. Todd Young, would need 60 votes to pass the Senate and reach Biden’s desk. Young, a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer, called it “the most critical vote that any member of Congress could be asked to take” when he introduced the bill in June. But getting 60 votes might not be easy, particularly in the narrowly divided Senate, where Democrats will need to ensure all 50 of their members and at least 10 Republicans back the bill.

Some Republican lawmakers, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson, have opposed the repeal of the 9/11-era authorizations for use of military force. They argue that such a move could embolden terrorist groups in the Middle East to go after U.S. troops and could hinder U.S troops’ efforts to defend themselves in Iraq, particularly amid a spike in attacks by Iranian proxy groups in the region.

Either way, the panel vote will likely trigger another round of debate over a president’s authority to wage war abroad after two decades of costly U.S. military campaigns in the Middle East. Successive administrations have used 9/11-era authorizations for use of military force, or AUMFs, to launch military operations across the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. Proponents of repealing the AUMFs say these authorizations, aimed in large part at targeting al Qaeda and other terrorist networks responsible for the 9/11 attacks, have been used well past their due date and need to be repealed.

“Congress’s role in war making has dangerously atrophied over the last several decades,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate panel, told Foreign Policy. “While I support efforts to repeal the 1991 and 2002 AUMF, I think also we need to be having a much broader conversation about reforming war powers and arms sales laws to make sure Congress has a co-equal seat at the table on all national security decisions just as our Founding Fathers envisioned.”

Four senior State Department and Pentagon officials briefed members of the Senate committee on the impacts of repealing the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs in a classified meeting on Monday evening: Joey Hood, the State Department’s acting top envoy for the Middle East; Joshua Dorosin, a top State Department legal advisor; Catherine Visser, special counsel to the general counsel of the Department of Defense; and Dana Stroul, a deputy assistant secretary of defense. The Biden administration in June released a policy statement saying the repeal of the 2002 AUMF would have minimal impacts on U.S. military operations.

An unusual coalition of progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans banded together to repeal several AUMFs under former President Donald Trump’s administration, with progressive lawmakers voicing concern Trump could lead the United States into war with Iran without adequate congressional checks on his power. Trump in early 2020 cited the 2002 AUMF to justify the assassination of Qassem Suleimani, a top Iranian general who oversaw Iranian proxy groups across the Middle East that carried out attacks on U.S. troops.

Most Democrats on the committee, as well as Republicans like Young who back the repeal, argue that Biden doesn’t need the decades-old AUMFs to defend U.S. troops abroad. In recent strikes against Iranian proxy forces in Iraq, the Biden administration cited Article II of the Constitution as his legal justification for launching retaliatory strikes against the proxy militias that targeted U.S. troops.

The Democratic-controlled House voted in June to repeal the 2002 AUMF. Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at the time that repealing the authorization was “crucial because the executive branch has a history of stretching the 2002 AUMF’s legal authority.”

“It is about Congress reclaiming its constitutional obligation to weigh in on matters of war and peace,” he said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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