It has been seventy-nine years since the United States went to war. Or at least legally.
Since World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on the Axis powers, the United States has never gone to war with explicit permission from Congress. President Lyndon B. Johnson went to war in Vietnam under the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution but without a formal declaration; President George H.W. Bush ordered 150,000 troops to the Persian Gulf before he had congressional authorization; and a few years later, his son signed into law joint resolutions to counterterrorism that formed the legal basis for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Had Congress taken a more active role after a thorough public decade occurred, the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam could have been re-evaluated and some of their disasters avoided.
Congressional involvement in declarations of war is far from revolutionary. James Madison wrote “the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war, [therefore] it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence.” And while Alexander Hamilton does stress that the president should exercise his or her right to judgment within their functions, he notes in Federalist No. 69 that “the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies… would appertain to the legislature.” The free use of joint resolutions that has characterized American wars since World War II, and Congress’s absence from decisions regarding military intervention in recent decades, would make the Founding Fathers roll in their graves.
First, authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) don’t create wars against any one entity. In contrast to when Congress signed into law five different declarations of war against every Axis-allied country, the 2001 AUMF was invoked to justify attacks against ISIS, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, and other entities that remain classified. Worse, now National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan himself acknowledged that the 2001 AUMF authorizes operations against groups like al-Shabaab that didn’t even exist when the resolution was passed.
By failing to limit the AUMF to a single entity, presidents have attacked adversaries beyond the scope of the mission. Richard Boucher, a top State Department official, summarized it as such: “First, we went in to get al-Qaeda…and even without killing bin Laden we did that. The Taliban was shooting back at us so we started shooting at them and they became the enemy. Ultimately, we kept expanding the mission.” Congressional war declarations inherently make that division between friend and foe clear, not blurred.
Another issue with the AUMF status quo is its lack of an exit strategy with delineated military objectives. There is perhaps no better example of this than the war in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan papers, published by Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, document how even the U.S. government remained unclear of its objectives: Was the goal to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban, to help the Afghan government become self-reliant, to democratize Afghanistan, or all of the above? To remedy this issue, Congress must create hard objectives by forcing frequent re-evaluations of conflicts to determine if they are necessary.
Lastly, AUMFs prioritize military engagement over the use of soft power. This is not to say that hard power is futile or outdated. But if it becomes progressively easier to bypass Congress when making crucial decisions regarding war and peace, it will be at the expense of diplomatic efforts and negotiations. Congressional involvement is critical to forcing the president to consider other methods of engagement before diving headfirst into conflicts without exit strategies.
To be sure, these suggestions don’t mean Congress should be involved in every national security issue. It is possible that the slow-motion speed of Congress hampers, not helps, time-sensitive decisions. But in cases like Libya, which President Barack Obama called “his worst mistake,” where no vital interest to the United States was at stake, should we not force the executive to explain its rationale to a representative body? Luckily, some lawmakers are taking notice.
A few months ago, the unlikely trio of Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT) introduced the National Security Powers Act, which would give Congress back its powers regarding war powers, arms exports, and national emergencies. It specifies when the president can deploy the military; requires statutory authorization for objectives and entities; mandates the Congressional Budget Office to report on the costs of the deployment; and forces Congress to vote on arms sales of the highest risks, like selling advanced weapons to countries other than Israel, NATO partners, and allies in the Asia-Pacific. Still, the National Security Powers Act is not without faults.
For instance, when it comes to self-defense, the act authorizes the president to take action when U.S. citizens or servicemembers are attacked abroad without congressional authorization. With troops stationed all around the world, it can be easy to create flimsy justifications after fait accompli missions. Admittedly, there is no easy solution to this; the desire for revenge in response to attacks on citizens is understandable, but nevertheless, it can create broader issues.
Another problem with the act concerns its restrictions on arms sales. As U.S. defense technologies become more and more advanced, and therefore see greater demand, imposing limits could obstruct allies looking to counter “the adversaries that are out there, Russia and China in particular.”
Whatever the specifics, Sens. Lee, Sanders, and Murphy have the right idea: to rein in executive powers that have led to botched involvement in military conflicts. A stronger legal foundation for intervention makes our national security stronger, our allies happier, and our foreign policy diverse. Who doesn’t want that?
Sam Abodo is an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy and an editorial intern with the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @sam_abodo.