This week, the Senate voted to do something that it hasn’t done in more than 50 years: repeal a war authorization. By an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 66-30, senators passed a bill from Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), finally repealing the measure that greenlighted the US invasion of Iraq.
The historic vote came at a fitting moment. On Mar. 20, 2023, we marked 20 years since the US war in Iraq began. The tragic anniversary was a potent reminder of the costs of the Iraq war: eight years of conflict, more than 126,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,500 US servicemembers killed, and more than $800 billion in total expenditures. And all of it was made possible by the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Iraq.
Passed by Congress in October 2002, the measure permitted the president to use the armed forces as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend US national security against the continued threat posed by Iraq.” The Bush administration drummed up support for the authorization’s passage by claiming that the Saddam Hussein regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. This claim, as the world later learned, had no basis in fact. But the AUMF passed, and even after the Iraq war was declared over in 2011, US policymakers neglected to take it off the books.
The inaction from Congress is far more than mere procrastination on legislative housekeeping. For one, the 2002 Iraq AUMF has been used by presidents of both parties to wage acts of war abroad that lawmakers never authorized.
The inaction from Congress is far more than mere procrastination on legislative housekeeping. For one, the 2002 Iraq AUMF has been used by presidents of both parties to wage acts of war abroad that lawmakers never authorized. In 2014, President Barack Obama cited the 2002 AUMF as one of the legal justifications behind its campaign against ISIS. The Obama administration first claimed that the authorization sanctioned strikes against ISIS in Iraq, and then later expanded the AUMF’s scope to allow strikes against the group in Syria. The Trump administration followed suit, using the outdated 2002 AUMF to justify the continued use of force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2018, while also claiming that its breadth potentially extended “elsewhere.”
Two years later, abuse of the authorization reached new heights, when President Donald Trump cited the 2002 AUMF in its assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, a reckless attack that brought the United States and Iran to the precipice of a disastrous war. Iran responded to the strike by attacking a military base in Iraq, which left more than 100 US servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries.
The threat of continued abuse is partially why the Senate’s vote today was so vitally important. As long as the 2002 AUMF remains on the books, a future president could wield it to carry out military operations that Congress never authorized, putting troops and civilians in mortal danger.
THE REPEAL IS OVERDUE
In addition to the AUMF being used (and abused) by US administrations to authorize unjustified wars, there is another fundamental reason why repeal is overdue: war powers as described in the Constitution. As Article I makes clear, only Congress can decide where and when our country goes to war. This is a solemn responsibility — and one that Congress has essentially abdicated over the past two decades as successive administrations repurposed the overstretched 2002 AUMF to sidestep lawmakers in launching military operations entirely unrelated to its original objective.
Even without the 2002 AUMF, the president still has the authority as commander-in-chief to defend the United States against sudden attack. And President Joe Biden — who supports repealing the authorization — has made clear time and time again that no existing operations would be affected by its removal. Simply put, there is no reason for the 2002 AUMF to remain active, and as the Senate’s passage of the Kaine-Young bill made clear, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are firmly aware of that fact.
But there’s still a major hurdle to be cleared before Biden can sign repeal into law: the House. Fortunately, there’s good reason to be optimistic. In the last session of Congress, House lawmakers voted 268-161 to repeal the 2002 AUMF, with 49 Republicans voting in support. A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Chip Roy (R-TX), Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), have introduced a House companion to the Kaine-Young bill. And the Washington Post reported Speaker Kevin McCarthy said the repeal bill has “a clear opportunity” to come to the House floor.
House lawmakers must finish what the Senate has started and take up repeal of the 2002 AUMF as soon as possible. In the process, they can give the country something that’s become all too rare in Washington these days: A sign that Democrats and Republicans are still willing to work in a bipartisan manner to strengthen our democracy and stand up for our Constitution.
Heather Brandon-Smith is FCNL’s Deputy Director for Foreign Policy. She leads FCNL’s work to repeal outdated war authorization, promote respect for human rights and international law, and reduce armed interventions around the world. Prior to joining FCNL, Heather served as the Advocacy Counsel for National Security at Human Rights First, where she worked to advance national security policies that are consistent with human rights and the rule of law.