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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/21/18

Will Congress Write the President a Blank Check for War?

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Congress granted Bush the 2002 AUMF specifically to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Once that was accomplished, that license ended. So, the 2002 AUMF does not provide an ongoing legal basis for US to engage in military action.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) stated at an October 2017 hearing that the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs have now become "mere authorities of convenience for presidents to conduct military activities anywhere in the world," adding, "They should not be used as the legal justification for military activities around the world."

At that 2017 hearing, Defense Secretary James Mattis and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Trump had sufficient legal authority to kill people in any part of the world he desired. They cited the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, as well as Article II of the Constitution. With an abundance of political caution, however, Mattis and Tillerson invited Congress to enact a new AUMF with no temporal or geographical limitations.

At his April 12 confirmation hearing, Mike Pompeo, Trump's nominee for Secretary of State, told Sen. Cory Booker that Trump had legal authority to bomb Syria without congressional approval. Pompeo testified, "I believe that he has the authority he needs to do that today. I don't believe we need a new AUMF for the president to engage in the activity you described."

The following day, the US, United Kingdom and France launched airstrikes in Syria. Like Trump's 2017 Syria bombing, they violated both US and international law. The Trump administration persists in its refusal to reveal the memo that purportedly explains its legal justification for the 2017 bombing of Syria.

Attempts in Congress to repeal and/or replace the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs have thus far been unsuccessful. But Mattis and Tillerson may now get their wish.

Authorization for the Use of Military Force of 2018

On April 16, 2018, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a new AUMF to replace the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Democratic committee member Tim Kaine (Virginia) sponsored the proposed legislation. Co-sponsors include Senators Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Christopher Coons (D-Delaware), Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Bill Nelson (D-Florida).

The 2018 AUMF would authorize the president to use military force, with no limitations, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. It would also allow the president to take military action against al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban, as well as their "associated forces" in any geographical location.

If the president wants to add countries or groups to his hit list, he must report to Congress. However, he can withhold whatever information he says is classified, as Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, has noted.

And although the president cannot add nation-states to the list of countries he wants to attack, he could circumvent that limitation by claiming that terrorists are operating in a new country, or say a particular country is a state sponsor of terrorism, and he needs to use military force to fight terrorism.

The president must notify Congress within 48 hours of expanding his military operations into countries beyond the six listed in the AUMF or "new designated associated forces." If Congress doesn't object within 60 days, the president's expansion will stand.

Alarmingly, the new bill contains a presumption that the president can decide when and where to make war. It would require affirmative action by two-thirds of both houses of Congress to prevent military action.

The bill has no expiration date. Every four years, the president would be required to send Congress a proposal to modify, repeal or maintain the authorization. But if Congress does not respond in 60 days, the AUMF would remain in force. Once again, it places the burden on Congress to take action.

In light of Congress's failure to meaningfully object to presidential uses of military force, including most recently in Syria, a president should have no concern about congressional pushback. He could continue to make war with impunity, cashing the blank check Congress has provided him.

The proposed AUMF would violate the United Nations Charter. The charter requires that countries settle their disputes peacefully, and forbids the use of military force except when conducted in self-defense or with the blessing of the Security Council. The new AUMF would allow the president to attack or invade another country with no requirement that the attack or invasion be conducted in self-defense or with the council's permission. It would thus violate the charter.

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Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and a member of the National Advisory Board of Veterans for Peace. Her most recent book is Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. See  (more...)
 

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