Congress recently approved a bipartisan measure aimed at limiting President Donald Trump’s authority to launch military operations against Iran. The resolution, authored by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va), garnered some publicity, even amidst the flood of news about COVID-19, perhaps because it was seen as a significant augmentation of legislative power at the expense of the executive.
In fact, Kaine’s bill would have added little to the extant powers that congress already has to provide a check on the president’s ability to go to war. The reason why congress has failed consistently over the last two decades to exercise those powers has more to do with apathy than lack of authority. And that is also the reason why this bill will ultimately fail.
The Constitution grants congress the prerogative to decide when this nation goes to war, and, inherent in its authority to fund those wars, the responsibility to provide oversight over how those wars are conducted. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires congress to explicitly authorize the involvement of US troops in hostilities within 60 days of their deployment, by declaring war or passing a resolution that authorizes the President to use military force Kaine’s bill seeks to reduce this limit to 30 days.
Following 9/11 congress passed two such authorizations for the use of military force, or AUMFs: the first in 2001 to allow the Bush administration to deploy US troops to Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the second, in 2002 to authorize military action against the threat posed by Iraq. Since then, despite a drastically changed situation in both countries, which has resulted in shifting US objectives and newly emergent adversaries, congress has made little attempt to scrutinize whether continued military action still falls within the purview of those AUMFs. Neither authorization has a sunset clause, so successive administrations have been content to leave them on the books, justifying whatever military action they deem appropriate.
And since any President — regardless of political party — can claim as the President’s supporters now do, that Congressional meddling threatens national security and undermines the troops in the field, it takes determined action on the part of congress to exercise its war powers. Over the course of the last two decades, there has been little sign of any such determination, which perhaps helps explain why the United States is still in Afghanistan and Iraq — and why we could soon find ourselves at war with Iran without significant public debate. Of course, for such a debate to happen, there would have to be a level of public interest fueled by a sense that the American public has something at stake.
Perhaps that is what is missing. A very small percentage of Americans serve in today’s military, so it should be no surprise that they feel little personal investment in the wars currently fought on their behalf. Without that sense of involvement there is nothing to drive media attention or congressional action: ‘America is not at war; the Marine Corps is at war; America is at the Mall’ was an oft-repeated refrain by graffiti artists in Iraq’s notorious Anbar Province where I served several tours. Perhaps that is simply the price of having an all-volunteer force.
This War Powers bill won’t muster the two-thirds Senatorial majority required to overcome presidential veto and thus will founder, its demise bemoaned or cheered, according to political affiliation. That’s too bad, because it offered at least an acknowledgment of congressional responsibility to ensure that when this nation goes to war, it does so only after due deliberation and for a coherent cause. That should matter to all Americans.
Andrew Milburn retired in March 2019 as the Chief of Staff at Special Operations Command Central. Over a 31-year career he commanded Marine and Special Operations forces in combat at every rank. He is the author of When the Tempest Gathers: From Mogadishu to the fight against ISIS, a Marine Special Operations Commander at war
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