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Congress moves to revoke Eisenhower’s blank check for Middle East wars

Bet you didn't know there was an authorization for the use of military force against international communism still on the books.

Analysis | North America

The United States still has laws on the book authorizing war to keep “international communism” out of the Middle East. Congress is looking to change that.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will be examining bills to repeal the 1991 and 1957 authorizations for the use of military force, or AUMF, during a Wednesday markup meeting. The former bill authorized the Persian Gulf War, while the latter is a blank check to carry out anticommunist operations in the Middle East.

Recent events have made Congress much more wary about leaving extraneous war powers on the books. Last year, the Trump administration used the 2002 AUMF — originally passed to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq — to justify assassinating Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani.

The House of Representatives moved forward on a bill by Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.) to repeal the 2002 AUMF two months ago, while the Senate is advancing a bill by Sens. Tim Kaine (D–Va.) and Todd Young (R–Ind.) to repeal both the 2002 and 1991 AUMFs.

Lawmakers are now taking aim at older war authorizations as well. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D–Va.) is looking to take the 1991 AUMF off the books, and a bill by Rep. Peter Meijer (R–Mich.) is taking aim at the 1957 AUMF.

“It’s great to see the House Foreign Affairs Committee pursuing these repeals, having already advanced Rep. Barbara Lee’s bill to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF, which was misused last year to justify killing an Iranian general,” said Heather Brandon-Smith, legislative director for militarism and human rights at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby group. “There is simply no need to retain outdated AUMFs and leave them open to abuse by the executive branch.”

Neither the 1957 nor 1991 AUMFs are being used for ongoing military operations. The 1991 AUMF authorized U.S. forces to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait three decades ago, and enforce UN resolutions that expired long ago.

The 1957 law is much more vague. It declares a U.S. policy of using “armed forces” to defend nations in “the general area of the Middle East” against “armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism.”

The Eisenhower administration told Congress at the time that the authorization would hopefully never have to be used, as its very existence would deter a Soviet attack.

“You may say, ‘Why don’t we wait until the attack occurs?’ Why, then it is too late. The whole purpose of this thing is to be a deterrent, a preventive to war,” then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said at a 1957 meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But several close calls during the Trump administration and a turn in public opinion away from “forever wars” has pushed Congress to finally begin revisiting the broad war powers it had given away over the past few decades.

“There’s an evident hunger among both parties in Congress to do more on this — and there should be,” said Erica Fein, legislative director at Win Without War. “The work has just started, and it will not be over until Congress repeals all of the AUMFs on the books, and reformed the War Powers Resolution so that legislating blank checks for war becomes a thing of the past.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (National Archives)
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