In the anxious aftermath of 9/11, Congress passed an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that gave the George W. Bush administration the legal authority to strike Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda. Since then, presidents have cited it to justify military action, in the name of the war on terror, where and how they see fit. Bush and Barack Obama conducted military operations in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen. Under a dubious reading of the AUMF and a subsequent authorization, President Obama went on to order missions in Syria and elsewhere against ISIS, which didn’t even exist when Congress passed the 2001 act. When it was reported in October 2017 that four U.S. soldiers had died in a firefight in Niger, Americans learned of yet another country where the United States was intervening militarily, sixteen years after the original and supposedly limited authorization.
The Constitution gives the legislative branch oversight of war-making powers, and with good reason. “The Constitution supposes what the history of all governments demonstrates,” James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1789. “The executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and the most prone to it.” Whether the framers foresaw a leader as reckless and ignorant as Donald Trump no one can know, but they clearly understood the risk of giving a president too free a hand.
Congress has refused to shoulder this responsibility for decades. But some legislators are urging repeal of the 2001 AUMF and seeking to reassert the legislative branch’s constitutional authority. Among the most vocal has been Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, who even before being named Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential running mate had criticized his colleagues’ “shameful abdication of responsibility” in failing to curb Obama’s expanding military campaigns. With Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, Kaine has proposed replacing the AUMF with an authorization that specifically names the enemy and countries where the U.S. military would be deployed. Their proposal also includes a five-year limit on the authorization, at which point a president would have to request renewal of the law—thus mitigating against the kind of “forever war” the United States is currently engaged in. It’s just this type of open-ended mission that the Trump administration has committed to with its recent announcement that U.S. troops will be kept in Syria for the “foreseeable future.” Kaine has understandably decried that plan, and he is right to demand tightly defined parameters over where, when, and for how long the U.S. military will be engaged.