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Mike Lee: Errors of this magnitude 'are how we end up in endless wars'

Mike Lee: Errors of this magnitude 'are how we end up in endless wars'

The Utah senator tells RS why he's demanding accountability for Biden's unilateral decision to wage war with the Houthis, and possibly Iran

Analysis | Washington Politics

As of this writing, the United States and UK have carried out nine rounds of strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, and Washington is mulling a response to the drone attack that killed three American soldiers in Jordan on Sunday.

All of this has increased fears of further escalation in the Middle East and sparked a debate in Congress over the legality and strategic rationale of the U.S. response.

Last week, four Senators — Mike Lee (R-Utah), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — sent a letter to the president, telling him that under the Constitution, the Congress must deliberate and vote on whether to take the nation to war. Biden did not go to Congress for approval before launching the airstrikes in Yemen.

“We strongly condemn the repeated Houthi attacks against international cargo ships and U.S. military assets protecting those ships in the Red Sea,” the letter reads. However, “while the Houthis and their backers, namely Iran, bear the responsibility for escalation, unless there is a need to repel a sudden attack the Constitution requires that the United States not engage in military action absent a favorable vote of Congress.”

The missive also lays out a series of questions for Biden to ensure that the American response to the situation in the Red Sea is “strategic and authorized,” including whether the strikes fall into the administration's understanding of “self-defense,” under which legal authorization the administration carried out the strikes, and on what date U.S. forces were “introduced into hostilities” in Yemen.

Why is any of this important? RS asked Senator Lee about the letter, his response to the Jordan attacks, his concerns over a wider war with Iran, and whether other colleagues in Congress feel the same urgency to hold the administration to account.

RS: Do you expect President Biden to come before Congress for authorization if the administration plans to respond to the drone attacks in Jordan?

Sen. Lee: I do not know if President Biden will voluntarily ask Congress for authorization to retaliate following the drone attacks in Jordan, but he should. He is within his rights to conduct defensive strikes in cases of immediate threats to the United States and its military, but as we have already seen, the Biden administration already interprets this prerogative far too broadly in other areas of the Middle East. It is possible that retaliation is indeed the right move, but we cannot allow President Biden to sleepwalk America into an undeclared war with Iran in the process.

RS: You recently sent a letter to President Biden urging him to go to Congress before pursuing further offensive U.S. military action against the Houthis. Why does the president have to go to Congress to authorize these strikes? Are there any plans to pursue a legislative vehicle that would authorize the use of force?

Sen. Lee: Every military decision made by the executive branch must be within the bounds of what the Constitution allows and consistent with the War Powers Resolution. The Constitution deliberately vested the power to make war with Congress, in Article I — keeping this power with the branch closest to the people who will bear the costs. Absent specific authority from Congress, the President reserves the power to defend the U.S. and its forces from imminent attacks. The Biden administration’s pattern of engaging in offensive airstrikes without authorization and calling such actions defensive is a warped understanding of the interactions between the legislative and executive branch powers in war making.

RS: The letter had four signatories, two from each party. Do you see potential for more bipartisan buy-in on this issue? If not, why not?

Sen. Lee: I have found great success in working with a serious group of members from both sides of the aisle in this space. The 2019 passage of the Yemen War Powers Resolution, which passed both chambers, was made possible by a bipartisan coalition. When the focus is kept on reasserting and restoring the role of Congress in the decision to declare war, a coalition of this kind can make history.

RS: There are recent conflicting reports that the Biden administration is considering a withdrawal of troops from Syria. In the past, you have supported efforts to withdraw. Would you support a withdrawal of troops from Syria today?

Sen. Lee: The first-order issue I had when U.S. troops were introduced into Syria remains the same today. Congress has never provided authorization for use of military force in Syria, nor has any administration provided a specific mission for U.S. presence that includes clear objectives and timelines on engagement. Strategic errors of this magnitude are how the United States ends up in endless wars, and it is exactly why the decision to make war was intentionally vested in the legislative branch and not in the hands of one, all-powerful but fallible executive.

RS: You recently told The American Conservative that “We’ve been down this road before and we know it costs the U.S. blood and treasure for little gain.” How concerned are you about the risk of escalation in the Middle East that could draw the U.S. in even further? What steps do you think could or should be taken to reduce these risks?

Sen. Lee: I am deeply concerned about escalation in the Middle East. For President Biden to admit that airstrikes have not changed the strategic environment in favor of U.S. interests while announcing his intention to continue them is wildly reckless policy. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem the administration is concerned about how any of this affects the strategic landscape broadly for the United States. Both the 2018 and 2022 National Defense Strategies acknowledge that we cannot effectively engage in active military campaigns in two theaters at once, even by proxy, and yet the Biden administration seems perfectly content to ignore its own acknowledged limits.

RS: Do you support the repeal of the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force in Iraq? Do you expect that efforts to repeal these AUMFs will succeed this year?

Sen. Lee: Keeping outdated AUMFs on the books creates an unnecessary risk of misuse. The 1991 and 2002 AUMFs should have been repealed years ago and I joined a number of my colleagues in cosponsoring bipartisan legislation to do this. The repeals passed the Senate last year and I continue to encourage my colleagues in the House to take action to complete the repeal. I also believe that Congress needs to begin a serious debate on the merits of maintaining the 2001 AUMF, which has become the fallback “authorization” cited for most military action in the Middle East.

U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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