Has Congress Learned the Lessons of the Iraq War?
Besides repealing the AUMFs, lawmakers ought to create new tools to curb U.S. military interventions.
The U.S. intervention in Iraq—one of the most disastrous U.S. foreign-policy decisions of the 20th century—commenced 20 years ago this month.
The costs of that conflict are still with us. A new report from the Costs of War Project estimates that the wars in Iraq and Syria have cost $3 trillion to date, including both U.S. government spending for waging the war as well as ancillary costs such as taking care of veterans of the conflict and interest on the debt generated by the funding of the war. Nearly 4,600 U.S. servicemembers died, and hundreds of thousands suffered physical or psychological injuries. Most devastating of all is the fact that up to 200,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the conflict.
While the ultimate decision to wage the war falls to the foreign policy team of George W. Bush, a majority of members of Congress bear a measure of responsibility for voting to authorize the administration to go to war. As the war dragged on and it became clear that it was not going to be the “cakewalk” that former Reagan administration official Kenneth Adelman famously claimed it would be, a larger core of members of Congress spoke out against the war, and it became an electoral issue in both the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential vote. But little was done to implement legislative reforms that might prevent the United States from launching such ill-conceived wars in the future.
This failure to take preventive action contrasts sharply with the array of actions taken by Congress in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Congress passed reforms like the War Powers Resolution, which requires Congressional authorization of military action within 60 days of a deployment of U.S. troops overseas; the Arms Export Control Act, which for the first time gave Congress the power to veto major arms sales; and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which imposed penalties for bribery in the export of U.S. aircraft and military systems.
Unfortunately, the most important of these new tools were not effectively used until decades after their passage. The first bicameral majority Congressional vote under the War Powers Resolution didn’t occur until 2019, in the context of efforts to stop U.S. military support for the brutal Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has caused nearly 400,000 direct and indirect deaths. The first successful vote by both houses of Congress against a major arms sale under the Arms Export Control Act came that same year, with respect to a proposed sale of precision-guided bombs to the Royal Saudi Air Force. Unfortunately, both the War Powers measure and the arms sales prohibition were vetoed by the Trump administration.
In addition, section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act is being invoked by Senators Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, to require a State Department report on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices, which could serve as a step towards further action, up to and including a cut off of security assistance to Riyadh. This is the first time the provision has been employed since 1976.
Another attempt by Congress to exert greater power over issues of war and peace is the ongoing effort by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and senators such as Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, to repeal the 2002 authorization of military force with respect to Iraq, which has been misused to justify U.S. involvement in other conflicts that have nothing to do with the war in Iraq. A measure to repeal the authorization may come to a Senate vote this week.
With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the sharp reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq—from over 160,000 at the peak of the war to about 2,500 now—U.S. interventionism has taken a different turn, with greater reliance on deploying relatively small numbers of Special Forces, engagement in drone strikes, and the arming and training of allies around the world. These activities are little discussed in any detail, despite the fact that the U.S. armed 103 countries over the past five years, and that the Brown Costs of War project has identified U.S. counterterror operations in at least 85 countries.
It’s a positive development that leaders in Congress are attempting to use tools first created in the 1970s in efforts to curb current U.S. military interventions, while attempting to roll back the ability of the executive branch to launch new ones. But it’s time to create new tools that may be more effective.
In addition to ending the authorizations for the use of military force that justified both the Iraq war and the broader war on terror—and voting to invoke its powers under Section 502B—Congress needs to further strengthen its hand in policy debates over whether to arm reckless and repressive regimes, a practice that can lead the U.S. into direct or indirect involvement in unnecessary wars. One way to do that is to “flip the script” on arms-sales decision-making so that major sales to key nations must be affirmatively approved by Congress, rather than relying on occasional resolutions of disapproval that can be vetoed by the president.
The 20th anniversary of the Iraq intervention is a reminder of the need for Congress to build on recent actions and play a more active role on issues of war and peace.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
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