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President Trump Has Not Waged War

February 4, 2020
Weekly Columns

When it comes to matters of war, you might have heard of something called an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). In recent days following Iranian aggression and the President Trump’s use of defensive force, there has been a lot of attention paid to prior authorizations and the U.S. military’s ongoing presence in the Middle East. This was a primary focus of the legislative activity in the House last week.

According to Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the power and decision “to declare war” is entrusted to Congress. Moreover, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 states clearly that the president cannot commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress. I have long been supportive of having a debate about how the legislative branch can reclaim this authority, especially following President Barack Obama’s unauthorized use of military force in Libya.

For background, an AUMF is the formal means by which Congress authorizes an Administration to deploy and use force against an enemy. There are currently two AUMF resolutions – with no sunset dates – that were passed by Congress and signed into law in the early 2000s. It is under these resolutions granted while President George W. Bush was in office and leading as commander in chief that the U.S. has continued to engage terrorists and insurgencies across the Middle East. The original AUMF, passed by Congress in 2001, gave the president the authority to use all "necessary and appropriate force" against those who "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Another AUMF was passed soon after in 2002, giving the president additional authority to defend the United States against continuing Iraqi threats and to enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions relating to Iraq. Since 2001, when Congress passed the original AUMF against al-Qaida and against associated enemies, the nature of the war on terror has changed dramatically. We now find ourselves fighting enemies that simply did not exist at the time and in areas that no one in Congress anticipated we would be at war.

To be clear though, President Donald Trump has not waged war with Iran – nor does he want to do so. Despite claims to the contrary, his record to date demonstrates incredible restraint and caution in dealing with the ever-aggressive Iranian regime. In fact, it was only after a series of provocations against the United States that the president chose to strike back with decisive and defensive force, taking out a longtime terrorist leader responsible for the brutal deaths of hundreds of Americans and undoubtedly plotting to kill more. In this case, I believe that the president acted well within his constitutional authority under Article II as commander in chief. Nevertheless, House Democrats brought up and pushed through two ill-timed resolutions in the name of reclaiming congressional war powers. Unfortunately, these misguided measures were clearly more about striking at the president than protecting American interests and congressional prerogative. Moreover, the resolutions were rushed to the House floor in such a way that purposely left out and shut out Republican views in this important debate.

The first resolution would repeal the 2002 AUMF without providing a replacement to ensure the U.S. military can continue to manage evolving threats in the region. While I agree that the U.S. should not be operating under such an outdated AUMF, we should not repeal without an appropriate replacement. Otherwise, we risk endangering the lives of our dedicated military as well as recklessly delegitimizing their ongoing counterterrorism operations in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Such a move ultimately emboldens terrorists, including those sponsored by the Iranian Regime.

The second resolution considered in the House last week would prohibit any future U.S. military operations against Iran – even to defend against Iranian provocation and imminent threats to U.S. or allied personnel and service members. This attempt to prevent the president from exercising his constitutional responsibility to defend the United States sends the wrong message to the Iranian regime about American resolve.

Certainly, those serving in the U.S. military need to know they have the full support of Congress in whatever mission they are tasked, especially as they are deployed to places no one anticipated in 2001. Therefore, I believe that the president should bring to Congress a clear and comprehensive strategy to protect American interests, deter reprehensible acts and eliminate jihadi forces that are operating and destabilizing our regional allies. I welcome a debate regarding a new AUMF and legislation that properly goes through the legislative process. This is the only way to reverse a dangerous precedent for the presidency, Republican or Democrat, who may deploy or threaten the deployment of U.S. troops to any region for any purpose without the consent and explicit authorization of Congress.