Time to end the authorization for endless war

February 11, 2015
U.S. President Obama thanks members of  the U.S. military for their service after meetings with military senior leadership for an update on the campaign to combat Islamic State at the Pentagon in Washington

President Barack Obama thanks members of the U.S. military for their service after meeting with military senior leadership to hear an update on the campaign to combat Islamic State at the Pentagon in Washington, October 8, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

President Barack Obama is about to ask Congress to authorize force against Islamic State, which he calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

This legislation is crucial. Congressional authorization for and oversight of military force is essential to American democracy.

Yet even as the president and Congress consider authorizing force against Islamic State, they should also work to sunset the outdated — and open-ended — Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed in 2001. This dangerous law could be used by a future president to wage costly, unauthorized wars with little congressional oversight.

The 2001 act has already been invoked by the Obama administration as a domestic legal basis for military attacks against Islamic State. Yet a bipartisan array of senior officials from the George W. Bush and Clinton administrations, as well as a diverse group of outside experts, agree that it’s far better for Congress to calibrate use-of-force statutes to a specific targeted threat.

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout

After all, the vague language of the 2001 authorization, passed just one week after the 9/11 attacks, surely wasn’t drafted with an eye toward Islamic State. The militant group didn’t even exist then.

Perhaps because of this, there is now broad consensus that any Islamic State-specific statute should include a “sunset” provision to ensure that the government’s new authority would expire after the 2016 elections — or require re-enactment then, if still necessary.

This would guarantee continuing congressional and public deliberation on the scope and conduct of any extended or expanded military campaign. For the purpose of a sunset provision is to ensure democratic accountability as a conflict inevitably evolves, not to end a campaign before it has achieved its objectives.

Just as the conflict with Islamic State underscores the need for a new, specific statute with its own time limit, it also highlights the problems created by leaving the 2001 authorization on the books.

That statute was aimed at the groups responsible for the 9/11 attacks — al Qaeda and the Taliban. Washington’s virtual destruction of al Qaeda’s “core” and the end of the U.S. combat mission against the Taliban in Afghanistan suggest that it has largely fulfilled its purpose.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gena Fedoruk and 1st Lt. Marcel Trott take off from in a KC-135 Stratotanker from a base in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility

Air Force Major Gena Fedoruk (L) and 1st Lt. Marcel Trott take off in a KC-135 Stratotanker from a base in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility in support of a mission to conduct airstrikes in Syria, September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout

The U.S. government, however, increasingly relies on the 2001 authorization to justify military actions against groups with little connection to the 9/11 attacks. It can cover regions far removed from Afghanistan, including Yemen, Syria and Iraq. That’s because Washington interprets the act to authorize military action against “associated forces” of al Qaeda such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and outgrowths of al Qaeda such as Islamic State. The White House has not been entirely forthcoming, however, about exactly which groups it deems associated forces.

In addition, the very fact that the Obama administration has claimed that the 2001 use of force act sanctions its bombing of and attacks against Islamic State underscores the dangers of leaving such an open-ended and unbounded grant of authority in place.

Congress never contemplated this use of the statute. There was also little opportunity for public or legislative debate before the United States initiated this extensive military endeavor. Though the new bill will reportedly clarify that the 2001 authorization will no longer apply to Islamic State, this sort of clarification says nothing about how it might be used against new groups in the future.

That’s why it’s so important that any statute authorizing force against Islamic State include not just its own sunset but also one for the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force — to require Congress to revisit both acts together on the far side of the next elections.

A new bill proposed by Representative Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, would sunset both a new Islamic State-specific statute and the 2001 authorization three years after the new bill is enacted. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee took a similar approach in legislation adopted in December, as does Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in his related proposal. This demonstrates bipartisan support for a double sunset.

In contrast, an Islamic State-specific statute that leaves the 2001 authorization untouched would do nothing to solve the well-documented problems the latter statute has provoked. These include a debilitating state of perpetual war, confusing legal authorities, diminished congressional oversight and a lack of public deliberation respecting significant new military operations.

Obama has been one of the most outspoken supporters of strong sunset rules. “Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions,” Obama explained in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, “we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation-states.” That’s why he expressed support for “efforts to refine and ultimately repeal” the 2001 force authorization.

But if Obama’s words have any chance of becoming reality, the Islamic State-specific legislation should contain sunset wording that also covers the 2001 authorization. Congress and the American people should continually revisit, and reapprove if necessary, all use-of-force authorizations.


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Endless war depletes our economy.

Posted by TigerFalls | Report as abusive

TigerFalls; Yes, on the whole, but certain politically connect suppliers to the military are enriched.

They should also include a sunsetting of the rules that give the president the right to imprison US citizens without a charge or trial. Now, that said, the fascists fought long and hard for these changes and they meant them to be permanent. These were vital steps needed to implement the NWO and a fascist corporate state which feigns at capitalism and freedom. So, there is likely to be no repeal of the tools of fascism when they are so close to completing the coup of the minds which has the fear of the people demanding their own enslavement.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

ISIS is an Islam problem. Those people need to self-police better and wipe their own arses for a change.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Sure – we can just schedule a war like car service……

Posted by Subwavelength | Report as abusive

It would be far more efficient and effective to let Islamic State actually come to power and set up a real government. Then you know which building to hit.

You don’t destroy your brother’s sandcastle by plucking sand grains from the beach ahead of time. Let him build it up first. Then stomp it and run like hell.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

US endless wars destroy US computers, cell phones, and digital cameras in US smart munitions, burn billions of gallons of US fuels and lubricants in US aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles, waste billions of US man hours in unproductive work, and cause tens of thousands of US casualties that will need health care for decades into the future. They encourage the “string of pearls” strategy for US bases that cause $300 billion per year to go from the US to foreign countries through lease payments, shipping of supplies and personnel, and paychecks for troops who go to towns in their host countries to spend portions of their pay. This allows other countries, like China, to use replenishment ships for their navies to spend more money on more modern equipment and move ahead of the US militarily.

Posted by carlmartel | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, much of the world does not see the Isis atrocities as being any worse than the collateral damage of a drone accidentally dropping a bomb on a hospital or school, or a U.S. soldier going on a killing spree and murdering eighteen Afghan civilians.

Posted by seagreen | Report as abusive