Why House Democrats Passed Bills Reining in Trump’s War Machine

Curtailing U.S. militarism is popular. Maybe it’s time to tackle the Pentagon’s budget too.

In 2016, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote a now infamous column arguing that Donald Trump would be more dovish on foreign policy than Hillary Clinton. Dowd was right on one front: Clinton, a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, was no anti-war champion. But neither was Trump: he was for the Iraq War before he was against it; he called for U.S. forces to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely; and he advocated massive Pentagon spending increases, “taking the oil” in Iraq, and shutting down immigration and asylum to Muslims, Mexicans, and other populations of color. Trump was no dove. But the undeserved moniker stuck — and it helped win him the election.

Now, with November 2020 around the corner, the Democratic Party may be finally waking up to the reality that being anti-war is popular with the U.S. public.

Just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives, remarkably, passed two measures that would constrain Trump’s ability to wage war with Iran. It’s remarkable because these were votes that the House didn’t “need” to take; it had already passed a war powers resolution blocking a Trump-precipitated war with Iran two weeks earlier. Yet, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained in her floor speech, she viewed passing these two bills as “additional steps” aimed at “protecting American lives and values.” Citing a poll showing that 60 percent of Americans oppose a new war with Iran, she added, “There is no appetite for war in our country.”

Two of the most outspoken proponents of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy in the current House, Reps. Barbara Lee and Ro Khanna, spearheaded these measures. Lee’s bill would repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the legal basis for the 2003 invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While the Iraq War and any legitimate excuse for this authorization officially ended in 2011, the law has nonetheless increasingly been under threat of misuse since the growth of the Islamic State. Despite supporting its repeal, the Obama administration claimed that the 2002 AUMF could be used for its anti-ISIS bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.

The current urgency in its repeal, however, comes after Trump administration officials claimed that the 2002 AUMF authorized Qassem Soleimani’s assassination in Iraq. “Leaving this outdated and unnecessary authorization on the books allows Presidents to utilize it for military action Congress never intended to authorize,” Rep. Lee argued. The legislation passed 236-166, with 11 Republicans and one independent supporting.

The other bill, authored by Rep. Khanna, would block the executive branch from using federal funds to start an illegal war with Iran. Importantly, this legislation does not go beyond what is already legally required of the president under the Constitution or the War Powers Resolution of 1973, meaning it does not prevent the president from acting in self-defense against an imminent threat. It simply uses Congress’s constitutional power of the purse to block a war that would already have been illegal. Still, it irked Trump enough for him to issue a veto threat. (He also threatened a veto on Lee’s legislation, but then seemingly reversed himself a day later.) The bill passed 228-175, with four Republicans and one independent supporting.

Trump’s worldview and decidedly not-dovish foreign policy has opened the door to Democratic (and some Republican) pushback. Indeed, Trump’s foreign policy has been incredibly unpopular in Congress. Four of six Trump vetoes have been of bills that have opposed his unconditional support for Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, his unprecedented “emergency” provision of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and his support for the Saudi and Emirati-conducted war in Yemen, which has led to the largest human-made humanitarian crisis in the world. With Congress poised to pass a war powers resolution to prevent Trump from declaring war against Iran, this list will likely soon grow.

Yet even this flurry of activity does not mean that the Democratic Party has turned anti-war. It just presided over one of the largest Pentagon budgets — $746 billion in fiscal year 2020 — in U.S. history without extracting concessions for diplomacy or military restraint. But the ground is shifting, thanks to a better understanding of where the public is and a demand for action from progressives both in and outside of the party. It was Sen. Bernie Sanders who championed the Senate push to end U.S. assistance for the Saudi/Emirati-led intervention in Yemen, a position that has now been uniformly adopted among the Democratic presidential primary candidates.

If Democrats continue to trend in this direction, they’ll finally be meeting voters where they are: seeking an end to forever wars, unconditional support for tyrannical governments, and blank checks for the military-industrial-complex. In doing so, they’ll seize on the public’s enthusiasm for a new approach to foreign policy, and distinguish themselves from Trump, who has failed to live up to the hype.

There’s no harm in taking a more restrained position on use of military force and a more progressive view on U.S. engagement in the world. As 2016 showed, the harm might be in just the opposite.

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