The Blank Check Grows Bigger: It’s Time to Repeal the U.S. AUMF

Source: Yann Kemper, Wikimedia Commons

LOS ANGELES — A raid by U.S. special operations forces in Syria on Feb. 3 resulted in the death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, leader of ISIS. Surrounded by troops at his home, al-Qurayshi refused to surrender and instead detonated a bomb that killed him and his family. At least 13 people died in the raid, including four civilian adults and six children. 

Though the Biden administration deemed the operation a success, with the president calling it a “testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide,” this raid is merely the latest in a string of military actions spanning the last two decades that have been predicated on a continually distorted Congressional resolution that was never meant to last this long — the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

The AUMF, hurriedly signed into law exactly one week after the 9/11 attacks, is a brief 60-word statement asserting “that the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” 

Though it was intended to be solely used against those directly responsible for 9/11, the AUMF has come to be the justification given for much of the U.S. military’s involvement in the Middle East over the last twenty years. It gives presidents the freedom to authorize military action without Congressional approval or oversight, a dangerous liberty that has been utilized to deploy forces in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia and and carry out covert operations in other unknown countries. In a situation eerily similar to the one earlier this month, the AUMF was used to authorize a raid in Syria in 2019 that killed the previous leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 

Since it was passed, every administration has stretched the AUMF’s meaning to apply to “associated forces” of al-Qaeda — people or groups it deems as having been in some way related to the 9/11 attacks — even though in most of these cases there is little or no connection. According to Foreign Policy For America, the AUMF has been used to justify 41 operations in 19 countries and, as a result, “has killed more than half a million people, created 21 million refugees and displaced persons in the region, and cost the United States six trillion dollars.”

In the case of this most recent raid (and the 2019 one), attempts to establish ISIS as an associated force to al-Qaeda fall apart under even shallow scrutiny. Though ISIS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the two publicly cut ties in 2014 and have even attacked  each other. At this point, they are far closer to rivals than allies. Additionally, ISIS was not founded until 2004, making it impossible for the group to have been involved in the 9/11 attacks. Clearly, the AUMF clearly does not apply to ISIS. However, the Biden administration’s use of the law as justification for intervention has raised no criticism or alarm — it is simply commonplace now.

Though several attempts have been made to repeal or revise both the 2001 AUMF and the second version passed in 2002 that greenlit the U.S. invasion of Iraq, none have been successful thus far. In June 2021, the House of Representatives voted in favor of repealing the 2002 AUMF, a promising step forward. The measure has not yet been voted on by the Senate, but an endorsement by President Biden and the bipartisan support it has received thus far signal a favorable outcome for the bill once it reaches the Senate floor.

According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, the administration is “committed to working with Congress to ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars,” a statement made ironic by Biden’s own reliance on the AUMF to conduct the raid in Syria.

Functionally, the last two decades have shown that the U.S. president can attack almost anyone they desire and find a way for the AUMF to cover it (particularly if the target is in the Middle East), concentrating an obscene amount of power into a single person’s hands.The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs need to be repealed and replaced to rebalance governmental war powers.

Congress may have reason to authorize a new AUMF sooner rather than later. Douglas Becker, an associate professor at the University of Southern California specializing in legitimation discourses, conflict resolution and historical memory, believes there is a chance a new one may be passed to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Becker says that there has been “a bipartisan call that if the U.S. is going to engage in any military actions in Ukraine, there needs to be a new AUMF; it is almost impossible to craft a justification for military action in Europe based on the 2001 AUMF.”

The current extreme polarization of the U.S. government has turned the congressional floor into a battlefield between political parties, but the united response to the Russian invasion and the shared belief by Republicans and Democrats that the past AUMFs are an overextension of presidential power are encouraging signals that an agreement would be able to reached on a new AUMF, one that proves Congress has learned from its past mistakes.

The successor should institute much stricter guidelines on the military actions the president is allowed to authorize and include an expiration for the measure (potentially tied to an end in aggressive maneuvers by Russia), a predetermined list of groups and nations the United States is fighting against and an explicit statement saying that the U.S. cannot deviate from that list unless other parties join the conflict at a later date. 

Doing so would limit the authorization from being interpreted beyond its original intent and thus prevent future presidents from manipulating it to justify military intervention. 

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Anya Moturi

Anya Moturi is a junior majoring in Intelligence and Cyber Operations and minoring in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence and Applied Analytics. Growing up in the culturally diverse Bay Area sparked her fascination with international relations, particularly in the way modern technology affects the ways countries interact and view security. She is also very interested in the economic and political situations in the Middle East and North Africa region of the world. On campus, she is the Philanthropy Chair for the Delta Phi Kappa sorority and a part of the USC Polo Team.

moturi@usc.edu