No sooner than the dust had settled on Iran’s limited military retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani did pundits claim it was a "win" for Trump. While we’re all breathing a sigh of relief that a direct military confrontation between the United States and Iran appears to be on hold for now, there’s a danger that Trump and his cabinet have taken the wrong lesson from last week’s avoidable events – namely, that Trump’s military action has deterred Iran and only more pressure will change the regime’s calculus.
Contrary to the narrative administration officials and many Republicans in Congress have coalesced around, now, more than ever before, it is essential that Congress get off its back foot and reassert its power over matters of war and peace.
The House of Representatives took an important first step on Thursday to rebuke Trump’s decision to sidestep Congress. By passing Rep. Elissa Slotkin’s (D-Mich.) war powers resolution, a bipartisan House majority made clear that it opposes war with Iran. While it’s not certain that Rep. Slotkin’s resolution will get a vote in the Senate thanks to chamber procedures, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has already introduced companion legislation that is guaranteed to receive a vote.
Although the resolutions are unlikely to become law (if Trump’s frantic tweets prior to the House vote are a sign of what’s to come), they set an important precedent. By immediately rebuking Trump, the House has sent a clear message that Trump does not have the unilateral authority to take the country to war with Iran. It also shows that members of Congress are finally listening to the U.S. public who, as poll after poll shows, do not want a war with Iran.
Coupled with the war powers resolution to end the U.S. role in Yemen that passed Congress just last year, Congress has finally begun to consistently exercise a muscle it had long forgotten. Yesterday’s vote remains largely unprecedented, one of only a handful of times Congress has taken action to reassert its war authority since the era of endless war began. What makes this more impactful is the Iran-hysteria that permeates Congress on both sides of the aisle.
Exercising its war powers must not be the end of Congress’s action to rein in Trump, however. A rebuke is important to interrupt the march to war, but Congress must go further and use every tool it has to prevent Trump from starting a deadly war of choice. That means passing legislation that use Congress's power of the purse to defund any war with Iran that Congress does not authorize. Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have introduced legislation to do just that. Both bills have key members of Democratic party leadership as original sponsors and continue to add cosponsors daily.
In addition to defunding unauthorized war, Congress should repeal the outdated authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) that the administration has tried to use as legal cover for the Soleimani assassination. Shortly after the strike, Vice President Mike Pence resurfaced a debunked conspiracy theory that Soleimani took part in 9/11 to claim Trump acted under the 2001 AUMF – the long-abused legal authority for the United States' post-9/11 wars. When that was criticized, the administration claimed the 2002 AUMF – that authorized the U.S. invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 – covered the Soleimani strike. None of these claims stand up to scrutiny, and instead reveal just how far the administration is willing to go to justify its lawless acts of war. Congress should repeal these outdated authorities that the administration will surely continue to abuse by passing Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-Calif.) AUMF repeal bills.
Thankfully, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled she is willing to bring all of the aforementioned legislation to the floor for a vote. But while Congress seems poised for action in the immediate term, it must not stop at creating roadblocks to war with Iran. The reality is that the United States' near-permanent war footing since 2001 has created a culture where military action is seen as the solution to every political and security challenge. It is this mentality – that every potential threat to U.S. power must be met with military or economic force – that has led us to the precipice of war with Iran. And while Trump has taken this mentality to its most extreme, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy long predates Trump. It is merely a framework that Trump has taken to its logical conclusion.
That's why Congress must go further in this moment and deeply examine the structures and groupthink that has convinced so many in power that war is the only viable tool to address conflict. That is the only way to get out partisan debates of good vs. bad guy or whether military action is legal, to debates of whether military force can actually address the problems we face and if it serves the security of people in the United States and those in the country we might bomb.
The past almost 20 years provide good evidence that our bomb-first-ask-hard-questions-never approach to violence and security challenges has not made us or the world safer. As thousands of people showed us on Thursday by turning out across the country to demand no war with Iran, the public is ready for the United States to choose an alternative path to endless war. The question is if Congress will finally listen.