Biden administration reviewing old authorizations for military force

Mar 9, 2021

US President Joe Biden is considering repealing War on Terror era authorizations on the use of military force amid pressure on Capitol Hill.

The White House is conducting a review of the government’s authorizations for the use of military force, an administration official told Al-Monitor on Monday. The National Security Council is leading the review and considering past strategies in light of new terrorism threats. Biden established interim guidelines on the use of military force when he took office, the official said.

The official added that it is too soon to comment on what policy changes may come out of the president’s review, but they pledged to work with both parties in Congress on the issue.

The comments followed a US airstrike in Syria that received criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. On Feb. 25, Biden approved bombing the Iraqi militias Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada at a border facility in eastern Syria. The administration blamed the Iran-backed groups for recent attacks on US forces in neighboring Iraq.

Members of both parties in the House and Senate spoke out against Biden for this, saying he failed to consult with Congress before using military force. The US Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, but in recent years the executive branch has approved and taken military actions on its own. The US Department of Defense cited self-defense in the Syria strike.

Not everyone in Congress was against Biden’s  Syria strike, however. Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the decision, saying it was an appropriate response to attacks on US forces by Iran’s allies.

“After several unanswered attacks against US interests I welcome the administration’s decision to authorize airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias operating in eastern Syria,” he said in a statement. 

Biden, as commander-in-chief, has the authority to conduct military operations in part based on an “Authorization for Use of Military Force” joint resolution from 2001 and another from 2002. The 2001 authorization provided a legal justification for using force against the groups responsible for the September 11 attacks. The authorization in 2002 enabled military action against Iraq, which was then led by former President Saddam Hussein. Biden voted for the Iraq War in 2002 while he was a senator.

The authorizations can be removed by Congress passing a law and the president signing it.

Some House Democrats think the Biden administration is now committed to repealing these authorizations. Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement on Friday alongside four other Democrats in the House. They praised Biden for his support for repealing old authorizations for the use of military force.

“The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs were both passed nearly 20 years ago and bear little resemblance to the threats we face today,” said the lawmakers in the statement, using an acronym to refer to the authorizations.

The congressmen said the 2001 authorization has become too expansive.

“The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify military operations in at least seven different countries against a continuously expanding list of both old and new adversaries,” they said, including in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

The members added that the Iraq authorization is no longer relevant since the United States defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces years ago.

“The 2002 AUMF, intended for use against Iraq, is obsolete. Yet if this outdated and unnecessary authorization remains on the books, it can potentially be used for military action Congress never intended to authorize,” they said.

Meeks and his colleagues are optimistic the Biden administration will work with them and the Senate to repeal the authorizations.

“We welcome the president’s renewed commitment to ending endless wars and taking outdated authorizations off the books,” they said.

Support for repealing the military force authorizations extends beyond Democrats in the House. Benjamin H. Friedman is policy director at Defense Priorities, a think tank that advocates for a “more prudent, restrained foreign policy.” He said Congress ending the authorizations would actually help end US military involvement in the Middle East.

“Ending the AUMFs would help end US wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan because doing so would show congressional desire to control wars and reflect a changed political consensus,” Friedman told Al-Monitor. “While wars, unfortunately, can continue without clear congressional authority, as we see today in Syria, it is rare that they continue in clear opposition to a congressional refusal to grant authority.”

Friedman said the authorizations should be repealed and that Congress could pass another law based on a new security threat if necessary. “If there is a need for another one based on a new threat, Congress should grant new authority,  he said.

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