The White House Shouldn’t Get a Blank Check to Wage War

Bookmark

For close to two decades, U.S. presidents have sent American troops into combat without requesting authorization from Congress. As it conducts a review of U.S. military operations around the world, the Biden administration should push to restore the legislative branch’s proper role in deciding when and where the country goes to war.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), allowing President George W. Bush to take military action against those responsible for the attacks, which led to the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. The following year, a separate AUMF gave Bush authority to invade Iraq. Both authorizations remain in place to this day, with no modification. They have been invoked by three presidents to justify an array of military operations around the world — from counterterrorism strikes in Somalia to the bombing of Islamic State strongholds in Syria to the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani one year ago.

The Constitution gives presidents broad discretion over the use of military force against foreign adversaries, provided Congress grants them statutory authority. The current arrangement, however, extends presidential war powers far beyond any reasonable interpretation of the law. By failing to pass any measure constraining the use of force since 2002, lawmakers have handed the executive a blank check to wage war however it sees fit — with little accountability for the human and financial costs.

Since 2014, congressional Democrats have mounted attempts to roll back the existing war authorizations, but none even reached a floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. Last month, the Democratic chairs of the relevant House committees called on the Biden administration to support legislation to repeal the 2002 authorization and join Congress in reviewing its predecessor. The proposed new law would require the executive to disclose the organizations targeted by the military, name the countries concerned, and include a sunset clause allowing Congress to end the authorization after a certain time.

Biden should agree to this, as he suggested he would during his campaign. It would narrow his freedom of action, but there’s an offsetting benefit from his point of view: It would force lawmakers to share responsibility for the outcome of U.S. military engagements. Under this approach, Biden would have to make the case for maintaining small and sustainable deployments in places such as Syria and Iraq, if that’s what he means to do, and for keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban to reach a peace deal with the Afghan government. This may generate opposition from members of his own party, but Biden’s position will be made stronger through an open debate.

The administration should insist that the commander in chief retains the power to respond decisively to imminent threats. And Congress should grant the president discretion to order U.S. forces to act in self-defense or in the defense of allies without first seeking legislative approval. The White House should be allowed to add adversaries not included in a first authorization, provided specific criteria for the use of force are met — just as the State Department is obliged to designate foreign terrorist organizations and the states that sponsor them.

For years, decisions about putting U.S. forces in harm’s way have been taken with too little public deliberation or transparency. Biden can do the country a service by insisting Congress discharge its obligations to the troops and to the Constitution.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.