In his first year in office, Joe Biden will mark an inauspicious milestone, the 20th anniversary of the passage of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the foundational law of our current endless wars. On the campaign trail, President-elect Biden promised to end those wars, and the 117th Congress will convene with the House having already voted for repeal and more than a third of the Senate on board. But if the last two decades of failed, endless war have finally gotten us to the point of repealing the 2001 AUMF, what happens next will determine whether we can finally turn the page on the so-called “War on Terror."
Passed in the hours after the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 AUMF is the foundational law of our nation’s endless wars. The modern equivalent of a declaration of war, Congress passed the AUMF with only one notable and heroic dissenting vote by California Representative Barbara Lee who warned then that the AUMF was a blank check for a global, endless war. Indeed, today’s bipartisan consensus for repeal is built around the acceptance that this warning has has been vindicated.
Sadly, fewer have taken heed of Rep. Lee’s other objection, that the president already had the legal authority to defend our country from an imminent attack. What Congress was voting on in 2001 was something very different, the right to wage preventative war in the name of stopping future, hypothetical attacks.
“I do not dispute the president's intent to rid the world of terrorism,” Rep. Lee said at the time. But we have many means to reach that goal, and measures that spawn further acts of terror or that do not address the sources of hatred do not increase our security.” In other words, not only would the coming “War on Terror” run the risk of being global and endless, it was likely to be a spectacular failure that could not address the root causes actually driving terrorism.
As much as the foreign policy establishment now accepts how prescient this warning of endless, global war turned out to be, her second warning of the war’s futility remains a contrarian view. Even as think tanks, experts, and lawmakers across the spectrum have now called for finally repealing the 2001 AUMF, they share a common formulation of how to do it: the 2001 AUMF must be both repealed and replaced.
Let’s agree to set aside for a moment the decision to repurpose a phrase whose origins is in the repeated failed Republican attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act while claiming they were somehow replacing it with a mythical, fantasy health care plan that more than a decade later has yet to emerge. It’s worth understanding the fundamental argument of repeal and replace when it comes to the 2001 AUMF. At its core, the argument is that the “War on Terror” has, by and large, been successful and must be continued.
Apparently, the fault lies not in the very notion of preventive war against violent anti-American extremists, but the legal structures surrounding that effort. Were such a mission to be crafted with sufficient constraints (such as geographic boundaries, a set timeline, or perhaps specific named enemies), it can and should be continued.
There remain real and significant disagreements among the proponents of repeal and replace over those limits, divisions that have thus far prevented any majority consensus to emerge around an actual legislative replacement, but, despite those divisions, the belief across the ideological spectrum that surely some war authorization must replace the 2001 remains strong.
Twenty years later, perhaps we should still be listening to Rep. Barbara Lee’s wisdom.
Looking back on two decades of waging war in the hope it would create peace and before writing yet another blank check for war, it’s time to repeal and reassess. Rep. Lee warned in 2001 that “measures that spawn further acts of terror or that do not address the sources of hatred do not increase our security.” Can anyone in Washington truly claim we have assessed whether or not our 20 years of warmaking against terrorism has actually increased our security? Before embarking on another few decades of war, shouldn’t we be sure what the answer to that question is?
The post-9/11 wars had three ostensible goals” to prevent another attack, to deny terrorists safe havens, and to bring accountability to those who attacked us. Let’s set aside the first of those for a moment. Today, while Osama Bin Laden and multiple other senior terrorist leaders have been killed, al-Qaida not only still exists but has been joined by ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, and a host of other entities whose violence takes lives nearly every day, though often, admittedly, not American lives. Those militants typically operate in large swaths of ungoverned territory, while what is “governed” is often controlled only through corrupt authoritarian dictatorships ruling through their own violent repression.
Yet back to that first goal, proponents of continued preventive war in the name of countering terrorism will be quick to point out the United States has, in fact, not suffered another attack approaching the scale of 9/11 since. That is true, and something for which we should all be thankful.. Yet touting this as a success requires ignoring the displacement of that violence on the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere who have died in massive numbers during the past 20 years as a direct result of these wars. The calculus that claims the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people is a price that must be paid for our own safety can only be described as immoral.
Just as damning, however, is the opportunity cost of focusing for two decades on a singular threat, at a cost of six trillion dollars and counting, while ignoring nearly every other threat. While Washington’s war caucus has spent 20 years claiming no expense must be spared in the “War on Terror,” many of those same voices have sat by while thousands died from hurricanes like Katrina in New Orleans and Maria in Puerto Rico. The same policymakers have refused to take action as tens of thousands died every year from gun violence.
And most glaring of all, despite years of warning and pleas for preparation, the federal government was caught unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and then dithered for months, failing to adequately respond to this day. The combined toll of this failure alone is the lives of more than 350,000 of our family, friends, and neighbors, a staggering toll whose daily count has recently sometimes exceeded the nearly 3,000 people killed in the September 11th attacks. All of these crises, with their massive human suffering, were made worse by the Washington establishment’s obsession with transnational terrorism at the expense of these other clear and present dangers.
Which brings us to the question of what to do now. As the 117th Congress prepares to get to work and President-elect Biden continues to put together his administration, it is time not only to simply repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF, but also to repeal and reassess what has worked, what hasn’t, and to determine if countering terrorism will be better accomplished by fighting preventive war or finally, at long last, heeding Rep. Lee’s calls to use all of the means at our disposal, focus on terrorism’s root causes, and stop trying to bomb our way to peace.