William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)The House of Representatives just took a historic step toward ending the policy of perpetual war that has governed US foreign policy during this century. Eighteen years after the passage of the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF), which essentially gave the executive branch a blank check for going to war, the House passed an amendment by Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee that will sunset that 2001 measure within eight months of its passage into law.
The original authorization was supposed to target, “nations, organizations, or individuals [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons,” but it has been applied to situations that go well beyond this definition. The aim of Lee’s legislation is to restore Congress’ constitutional authority to prevent the executive branch from launching unnecessary “wars of choice” — like the largely disastrous US intervention in Iraq. William HartungGetting the Republican-controlled Senate to follow suit and overcoming a potential veto by President Donald Trump will be a tough road, but well worth the effort if it puts the issue of congressional authority to sign off on the use of military force front and center between now and 2020.This measure is particularly important now, as tensions with Iran run the risk of sparking yet another war in the Middle East. In a closed-door briefing last month, members of Congress expressed concern that the administration might wrongly invoke the authorization for the use of military force, approved after September 11, to go to war with Iran. Testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, the administration’s point man on Iran, Brian Hook, dodged the question, stating only that it would “comply with the law” in deciding whether to take military action against Iran. But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s dubious claims of a significant relationship between Iran and al Qaeda suggest that the administration is at least considering using the 2001 AUMF to justify a war with Iran. Read MoreThankfully, last week, Trump pulled back from the brink and decided not to bomb Iran in response to Tehran’s shooting down of an US surveillance drone. As Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group has noted, if a military action against Iran were to escalate to a full-scale war, it would “make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park.” It could also cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Trump calls it offThe House action to restrict the President’s war powers is long overdue, given the high price of our post-9/11 wars. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the US wars of this century will cost over $5.9 trillion once obligations for lifelong care of the veterans of these conflicts are taken into account. These financial costs, immense as they are, can’t begin to express the human consequences of these conflicts, which have left over 4,423 US troops dead and 31,597 wounded, and hundreds of thousands more with traumatic brain injuries or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And by a conservative estimate, more than 480,000 people have died on all sides of these wars. Meanwhile, the number of terrorist groups operating around the world has multiplied. There is growing evidence that the American public is tired of our forever wars. An October 2018 survey by the Charles Koch Institute found that only 21% of Americans feel that the United States has a “clear strategic objective” in Afghanistan, and a Pew poll from November of that year indicated that only about one-third of voters think hunting down terrorists in other countries should be a priority. Veterans organizations such as VoteVets and Concerned Veterans of America, which occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum, have joined forces to press for a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and a repeal of the overly permissive 2001 AUMF, as the House has just voted to do. The mood in Congress with regard to war powers has been shifting over the past few years, as evidenced by the historic passage in both houses of bills that would have ended US support for the brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen under the War Powers Resolution. Although Trump ended up vetoing the resolution, it remains a testament to growing congressional opposition to counterproductive unauthorized wars. The rising risk of war in the Middle EastThe bipartisan nature of this opposition was underscored in an April 4 letter to the President, urging him not to veto the resolution. It was signed by a group of members that included Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, along with Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul. The letter called for an end to the unconstitutional US role in Yemen as a way to “set a new precedent for cooperation with both chambers of Congress” on issues of war and peace. Since then, Republican Rep. Andy Biggs and Democratic Rep. Khanna have started a new War Powers Caucus which, in the words of Khanna, is designed to lead the way to “re-establish congressional war-making power, military restraint, and [remove] the U.S. from endless wars as the pillars of our foreign policy.” Despite his veto of the Yemen legislation and his failure to end any of the wars he inherited, even Trump has, on occasion, acknowledged that the era of perpetual war needs to come to an end. During his campaign for President, he routinely referred to the Iraq War as a “disaster,” and he has noted that the trillions spent on our Mideast wars could have gone a long way in rebuilding America. In this year’s State of the Union address, Trump stated flatly, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Stay up to date…
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Strong action by Congress will help tip the balance away from a policy of ever more war and toward one grounded in diplomacy and economic cooperation — with force reserved as an instrument of last resort when there is a serious threat to the United States that can’t be resolved through other means. Never again should the United States go to war without the authorization of Congress. The next step is for the Senate to take action to repeal the 2001 AUMF and for Trump to sign it into law. America will be stronger and better for it.