We very recently almost found ourselves in a new war with Iran. As part of its continued response to that crisis, the House of Representatives is planning to vote on repeal of the Iraq war authorization. These two things may seem totally unrelated, but the Trump administration’s reckless Soleimani assassination is actually the perfect example of why Congress can no longer afford to put off repealing — and not replacing — this long-outdated law. Here’s why.
To be clear, the resolution on the chopping block is the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). It was enacted by Congress to approve a disastrous war of choice — invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — and has since been used to justify unrelated and unauthorized military activity. Most recently, it was cited by the Trump administration amidst its flurry of contradictory rationales for the Soleimani strike. It’s legally laughable that this authority could cover a drone strike against an Iranian official in 2020, but this episode makes clear a dangerous reality: if the authorization remains on the books, it will continue to be used.
Indeed, the Soleimani assassination was not just a reckless and dangerous escalation, it was the exact outcome that advocates of repeal have long been working to prevent. While this moment rightfully became an opportunity to mobilize against a new war, it must next lead to a long-overdue reckoning. For nearly two decades, Congress has allowed this expansive war authority to remain on the books, ripe for exploitation by a conflict-prone executive. What was once a persistent warning alarm should be now blaring like an emergency siren: repeal of the Iraq war authorization must become a top priority, in order to prevent future similar crises.
Frustratingly, it was barely a month ago that Congress actually had a prime opportunity to do just that. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), on a bipartisan basis, adopted a provision led by Rep. Barbara Lee to do away with the 2002 Iraq authorization. It shouldn’t have been, and wasn’t, controversial. Repeal is also popular among the public. Hundreds of people from all over the country assembled in Washington, D.C. this fall as part of the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s annual gathering in support of repeal. It’s just one example of many. Letters have been sent, phone calls have been made, and events have been organized. But at the last minute, the provision was stripped from the bill.
The recent brush with a new Iran war shows why it’s so important for Congress to act boldly for repeal. This is not an academic exercise or a simple matter of getting paperwork in order. It’s not just process for the sake of process. There are real consequences and real lives at stake. Congress’ power to authorize force, and accountability to the voters for how they wage that authority, is supposed to serve as an extra step between the whims of the executive and potentially deadly results. It’s a matter of a functioning democracy to ensure that that these checks and balances are in place. Indefinite authorizations like the Iraq war AUMF let Congress off the hook and put war on autopilot.
Enough is enough. It should be a top priority for Congress to correct its historic blunder of passing the buck when it comes to war and peace. After all, those who voted for the Iraq war authorization in the first place have been haunted by their choices years later. Consistently, across the ideological spectrum, the Iraq war is widely reviled and politically toxic. So, too, should those who decline to finally repeal that authority fear both the political and human consequences of their continued failure to act.
It’s time for Congress to follow the lead of advocates by not stopping until this authorization, which has caused so much suffering and will continue to do so until it is gone, takes its rightful place in the dustbin of history.