Foreign Policy

Trump Shouldn’t Have a Blank Check For War


The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is preparing a bipartisan bill that would replace the 2001 “war on terror” authorization with a new, updated version. While this is a noble goal, the bill that they are considering isn’t good enough. In fact, it’s worse than the status quo.

The stakes are very high here: Donald Trump is now the president. Whatever war powers Congress decides to hand over to the executive branch will fall into Trump’s lap. He has proven to be volatile, impulsive, and untrustworthy when it comes to foreign policy. The last thing Congress should do is expand his authority to unilaterally wage war.

WHAT IS THE AUMF?

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, then-President Bush announced a “global war on terror,” and asked Congress for wide military authority. Under the Constitution, it’s Congress’ responsibility to decide when and where to go to warnot the President’s.

Congress gave President Bush what he asked for.  They overwhelmingly passed the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Forcemost people just call it “the AUMF.” It was a short, 60-word sentence authorizing the president to take military action that he deemed “necessary and appropriate.” It didn’t include many limitsno restrictions on where to use military force, and it never expires.

Only one Member of Congress voted against it at the time. Rep. Barbara Lee warned that we shouldn’t “become the evil we deplore” by jumping into limitless war.

She was right: the AUMF proved to be dangerous. That short resolution was used by the Bush administration not only to launch a massive war in Afghanistan and beyond, but also to detain people without charge or fair trial at Guantanamo Bay, to torture detainees, to use surveillance without warrants, and more. President Obama then relied on the “blank check” to justify his drone wars. These actions have harmed human rights and civil liberties, and made us less safe.

Fast forward to today, and the AUMF is still on the books. And now it’s in President Trump’s hands.

WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM?

This places massive amounts of power in the President’s hands. Remember, Congress—not the President—is supposed to decide when to go to war. But as long as this “blank check” is available, the administration can just cite it as legal authority without going to Congress for real debate and vote.

That lets Congress off the hook, too. They can avoid taking controversial positions if they don’t have to vote on war. They can just let things happen on autopilot and blame the administration when things go wrong.

This is a lot of power for Trump to hold, with no checks or balances. He has promised to “load Guantanamo up,” to commit war crimes, to bring back torture, and voiced support for a Muslim registry. He’s already implemented a Muslim and refugee ban citing national security concerns, and ramped up military operations that have destroyed civilian populations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and beyond. And now he’s building a war Cabinet of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Gina Haspel, to carry out his destructive agenda.

A blank check is a dangerous thing in Trump’s hands. Congress should be finding a way to take it away from him.

WHAT IS CONGRESS DOING ABOUT IT?

Several Members of Congress have attempted to repeal the open-ended 2001 AUMF over the years. Most recently, Senator Rand Paul forced a vote on the Senate floor, but the Senate voted to kill his amendment. (See how your Senator voted here: the “yes” votes mean they killed the amendment and avoided talking about the global war at all, and a “no” vote means they wanted to bring the issue to the Senate floor for consideration.)

Something similar happened in the House - in the spring of 2017, Rep. Barbara Lee successfully convinced a bipartisan committee to adopt repeal language into a must-pass defense spending bill, only to have House Speaker Paul Ryan strip it out quietly before it even got a floor vote.

Now Senators Corker and Kaine have introduced a bill that would replace the 17-year-old AUMF with a new authorization, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is moving it forward.

WHY IS THIS CORKER AND KAINE BILL SO BAD?

It’s tempting to think that a new, updated AUMF, especially one that is bipartisan, is better than the current status quo. But that’s unfortunately not the case.

Here are some of the major problems with this bill as written:

  • It has no expiration date, virtually extending the forever war
  • It has no geographic limits, potentially stretching the war across the globe
  • It doesn’t meaningfully enhance transparency or oversight
  • It could be used by the Trump Administration to expand indefinite detention without charge or trial
  • It totally reverses the constitutional procedure for warmaking. Constitutionally, the Administration should make its case to Congress before using force, and then Congress should debate and vote that proposal up or down. This bill flips the script, allowing the President to unilaterally add new enemies to the list of military targets without further approval from Congress. It would allow Congress to to vote to disapprove the new targets, but only through a veto-proof supermajority.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

There is still time to improve this bill, and kill it if it does not get better. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will soon take up this new AUMF and mark it up by considering various amendments. It’s not clear if it has a path forward past committee, but we will continue to monitor developments.

Congress should rein in Trump’s endless war authorities, not expand them.