Why Congressional moves to de-authorize the Iraq War matter

The Senate moves forward with a vote to overturn outdated legal authorizations for US wars in Iraq. It’s mostly symbolic, but it has some real-world implications.

On Thursday, the Senate will hold a procedural vote that will likely result in a full vote on a measure to revoke the 2002 and 1991 authorizations for the use of military force. The measure has a tougher path in the House of Representatives, and the Biden administration supports repeal.

It is significant that the legislature would remove a piece of the scaffolding from America’s perennial wars in the Middle East and ban abuse of the legislation by a future president. It also shows that Congress is willing to exercise its constitutional powers when it comes to war. The cross-party effort is commendable.

But it’s not enough.

Repealing the 2002 authorization for the use of military force will not address two major ongoing dynamics that will ensure this, even if President Joe Biden has and has ended the perpetual war in Afghanistan shortened Drone attacks, the war on terrorism continues.

First, the post-9/11 authorization that Congress approved in 2001 as the basis for worldwide US counter-terrorism operations remains on the books and remains as the legal framework for ongoing US military efforts. It has been used in at least 22 countries. It is the justification for the current presence of US soldiers in Syria and Somalia, thanks to the White House’s sweeping interpretation of al-Qaeda’s associated forces, which now includes ISIS and militant groups that did not exist when the authorization was granted. But reaching consensus on expiring that 2001 permit has been harder than it is used more widely, including by the Biden administration.

Second, the 2,500 US troops in Iraq are unlikely to be affected. Official combat use there has been over for more than a decade, and they train and support Iraqi troops under security cooperation agreements and possibly under 2001 approval. But the contours of US security assistance are amorphous and can amount to a stealthy mission. Experts say there is currently not much clarity about the full breadth of US operations in Iraq.

The Biden administration said Thursday that the repeal of the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs “would have no impact on ongoing U.S. military operations.”

But even if the repeal is insufficient, it is important and will set guard rails for future US presidents. Lawmakers are finally addressing these longstanding empowerments that have the potential for abuse by the executive branch. As Katherine Ebright of the Brennan Center for Justice put it, “Congress has the responsibility, has the power to interfere on issues of war and peace, and it doesn’t do that often enough.”

The war on terrorism continues thanks to a broad legal framework

America’s first war in Iraq in 1991 is so old that I’ve found memorabilia from that period – like Desert Storm trading cards – stacked in antique shops. But the 1991 intervention authorization is still in effect.

The same is true of the 2002 Congressional authorization to use military force in Iraq, the text of which begins with a lengthy preamble on Saddam Hussein. It authorizes the President to use military force against Iraq, largely in the context of decades-old United Nations resolutions on Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, about which the Bush administration lied to justify the invasion and which have never been found. It’s hard to say that’s relevant today when US military intervention there ousted Hussein so long ago.

But in January 2021, then-President Donald Trump used the permit, amid some controversy, as the basis for the assassination of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader, Qassem Soleimani, who was in Iraq at the time.

Trump authorized the strike against Soleimani without consulting Congress – and it shows why lifting matters. “It removes a potentially dangerous tool that could be abused by a future government, particularly to fight Iran in the Middle East,” said Brian Finucane of the International Crisis Group. “So it prevents potential future mischief by a government interested in making a final run around Congress.”

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the repeal to the Senate. The measure is being championed by progressives and conservatives, as well as veterans’ groups, religious groups, peace groups, government oversight groups and transparency groups, according to Heather Brandon-Smith of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “There’s a huge coalition of organizations that support this repeal,” she told me.

One reason it took so long for Congress to de-authorize the Iraq War is because legislative efforts were coupled with the 2001 authorization, which the US still uses in many countries. Last week, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reviewed the bill, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) added an amendment to reverse the 2001 approval, but it was rejected by 20 other senators. Other changes can be added, but Kaine expects they won’t hold up the repeal.

Since the executive branch does not rely on Iraqi authorizations to conduct ongoing operations, it will not make an operational difference, according to Finucane, who previously worked in the State Department’s legal adviser’s office. “This is truly the lowest of all low-hanging fruits,” he told me, “The much more significant reforms will come in relation to the AUMF of 2001, which currently has no real movement from either the Executive Branch or Congress to go that long reform – obsolete war authorization for the war on terror.”

Still, the repeal vote could spark a wider discussion about US troops in Iraq, Syria and Somalia — ongoing operations unmentioned by President Biden but in stark contrast to his commitment to ending endless wars.

Perhaps by reminding Congress and the American public that these authorizations can go off the books, one can refocus on the more difficult task of repealing, discontinuing, or reforming the 2001 authorization for the use of military force.

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