The Atlantic: How Can Congress Authorize War When It Can’t Decide What War Is?

July 21, 2019
In The News

In the past few years alone, the U.S. has launched military strikes in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq—all in the name of fighting al-Qaeda and its later offshoot, the Islamic State. For the most part, Congress has accepted this. But as Trump-administration officials talk ever tougher about Iran, many Capitol Hill Democrats, and some Republicans, fear that the confrontation could spin out of control into a devastating conflict. And now they’re trying to claw back some of the power that the president—whom they view as dangerous and reckless—has to declare war. Administration officials such as Mike Pompeo have made the rounds to argue for the connection between Iran and al-Qaeda. The president declares he wants to negotiate with the Iranians in one breath and threatens consequences the likes of which no one has ever seen in the next. This worries Democrats such as Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I learned firsthand,” he said recently, “that when politicians talk tough in this town, real people get hurt.”

He’s one of 87 co-sponsors of a bipartisan amendment to the House defense budget that would prohibit Donald Trump from launching a war with Iran without congressional authorization. Elissa Slotkin, a freshman Democratic House member from Michigan who served in Iraq with the CIA, is another. When she heard Pompeo talking about al-Qaeda and Iran this summer, she said Saturday at the Aspen Security Forum, “my ears pricked up.” It sounded to her as if Pompeo was trying to create space to go to war with Iran, and argue that the administration could legally do so under the 2001 law that authorized military force against al-Qaeda and its associated forces.

No one who voted for that law after the September 11, 2001, attacks would have envisioned its use against the Islamic Republic of Iran, she said. Her colleague Mac Thornberry, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee who voted for the authorization, said at the same event that he certainly didn’t envision all the battles the law is currently being used for—including the fight against ISIS and other counterterrorism missions all over the world...

The 2001 authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda is in some sense a remnant of the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, launched when the horrors of 9/11 were still raw. Nearly two decades and thousands of U.S.-military deaths later, the appetite for new overseas interventions is low even as old ones drag on. Some 60 percent of Americans, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll from May, would oppose a preemptive strike on Iran—but 79 percent said the U.S. military should respond if Iran attacked.