First appeared at Bloomberg
As the battlefield grows, U.S. lawmakers need to pass a new legal authorization.
President Donald Trump’s announcement of a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan is a reminder that, for far too long, Congress has shirked its constitutional responsibility to declare war. With the U.S. also involved in fighting in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, the legislative branch needs give the executive branch the legal authority it needs to conduct the military campaign against terrorism.
Efforts to pass a new war authorization, or AUMF, repeatedly failed during the presidency of Barack Obama. Democrats felt that various proposals coming out of the White House and Congress gave the executive branch too much freedom to pursue its own track; Republicans thought they tied the president’s hands.
Now there is a bill in the Senate, introduced by Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia, that includes many of the best ideas of previous proposals while eliminating most of the wrongheaded ones.
In a nutshell, the Flake-Kaine proposal would repeal the two outdated measures on which the White House now relies: the 2001 AUMF, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the 2002 authorization of the invasion of Iraq. Those authorizations provided authority for actions only in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet the Obama and Trump administrations have used them to spread the war against terrorism across the Middle East and North Africa.
In their place, the new bill offers the administration more flexibility in defining the geographic areas where U.S. forces are now fighting and where they may have to go in the future. It does not impose troop limits. But it hardly gives the president a blank check.
The proposal would designate al-Qaeda, Islamic State and the Taliban as specific foes, but also allow the White House to add “associated” forces and individuals that “substantially” support those three groups or engage in hostilities against U.S. troops. However, the administration would have to notify Congress within 60 days of any new additions to the enemies list, or of any operations outside the six countries where U.S. forces are now officially active.
The most significant change from earlier proposals is that it would give Congress a fast-track process to vote on joint resolution refusing to approve use of force against a new enemy. The AUMF would also expire after five years, meaning Congress couldn’t put the issue off for another 16 years.
Lawmakers have had some legitimate grounds to object to previous attempts to revise the AUMF. At the same time, it’s hard to escape the conclusion they have been happy to avoid the issue because they don’t want to “own” the ever-expanding fight against terrorism.
That’s never made sense — whether its permission is explicit or tacit, Congress can and should be held accountable for America’s military interventions abroad. With Trump finally issuing the military new marching orders in America’s longest war, Congress too should exercise its constitutional role in checking the president’s war-making power. The proposal currently in the Senate is a worthy attempt to take up that responsibility.