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What Is An AUMF and Does The President Need One?

by Countable | 4.7.17

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s missile strikes against Syria late Thursday night debate has re-emerged about the necessity of a current Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Since WWII the U.S. has used the AUMF as opposed to a declaration of war to empower presidents to pursue large military objectives. A declaration of war legally empowers the executive branch in a variety of ways, while an AUMF usually has more specific parameters and boundaries:

"A ‘declaration of war’ has always been a specific policy tool -- a blunt one, and one that many presidents, and Congresses, have chosen not to use. ‘Authorizations,’ by contrast, permit the two branches to agree on limited war aims. An authorization can lapse without a formal surrender; it can permit military action short of total war."

Libertarian-leaning Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul (KY), have argued that President Trump’s use of force Thursday night was unconstitutional, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated that he both supported the missile strikes and felt they were within the president’s rights. He said:

"We passed one [an AUMF] back in 2001 and 2002, I believe, and the previous president thought that it authorized what we were doing in that part of the world, and I expect this president thinks the same."

Other congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have called for an AUMF prior to any further military actions against Syrian president Bashar-Al Assad. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has even called for congress to return from their planned Easter recess to debate and authorize any further military actions in the conflict. The House started an 18-day recess on Thursday afternoon and so far House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) hasn’t announced plans to call them back before the anticipated April 24 return. The Senate leaves for their recess Friday, and will return the same day.

The AUMF referred to by Sen. McConnell was issued after the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks. It was a broad authorization with no restrictions on geography, type of action or military forces deployed. It also provided no concrete end goal or means to assess when the AUMF was no longer authorized. It states, simply:

"That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."

The broadness of this AUMF allowed President George W. Bush and President Obama to pursue on-going conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East during their respective administrations. President Obama also tried to use it to support his goal of pursuing military action against the Syrian government in 2013 after massive chemical attacks against civilians. At that time Congress voted in opposition to his proposed actions, and the administration pursued diplomatic options to deal with the chemical threat.

In subsequent years, members of Congress have tried to create a new AUMF to address the ongoing war against terrorism, but efforts have stalled. Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a bill in 2015 that they are hoping to revive debate on. Supporters have argued for a new AUMF against ISIS that:

"is explicitly and exclusively directed at ISIS, prohibits the large-scale deployment of U.S. ground combat troops, and includes both a geographic limitation and a resolution clause based on agreed criteria for ending the military phase of the fight against ISIS."

Now that the administration’s military actions have focused specifically on the the Assad regime, Kaine and McCain’s legislation likely won’t speak to the present conflict, though many of the same boundaries on action will need to be addressed. If Congress does not return early from their Easter recess, expect the debate to begin as soon as they do.

Should Congress approve a new AUMF before the administration pursues any further military action in Syria? Use the Take Action button to let your reps know what you think!

— Asha Sanaker

(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Public Domain)

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