Editor’s Note: US Rep. Barbara Lee is a Democrat representing California’s 12th congressional district. She was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 AUMF to go to war in Afghanistan, and helped lead the opposition against the 2002 AUMF to go to war with Iraq. She is the co-chair of the Policy and Steering Committee and serves on the Budget and Appropriations Committee. Bridget Moix is the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national, nonpartisan Quaker organization that lobbies the federal government to advance peace, justice and environmental stewardship. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Iraq.
There is a tendency to file away chapters of American history of this magnitude as a tragedy of the past, a somber anniversary to reflect upon before redirecting our attention back to the demands of the present moment. Today – after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s quick toppling led to eight years of brutal conflict that killed more than 126,000 Iraqi civilians and 4,500 US service members– the US and Iraqi governments consider themselves to be strategic partners.
But a dangerous remnant of the Iraq war is still with us: the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq. And from our vantage points, one of us in the halls of Congress, the other at the head of a Quaker peace group with thousands of grassroots advocates nationwide, the momentum has never been stronger to finally get this outdated legislation off the books.
The 2002 Iraq AUMF was passed by Congress in October of that year with overwhelming majorities in both chambers. We voiced our opposition at the time, but our calls were drowned out by the drums of war. Our stance was rooted in concerns that ended up coming to fruition — we felt that the United States was rushing into war without a full understanding of the situation and we feared that such recklessness could spiral into a protracted conflict with no clear timeline.
The measure enabled the president to use the US armed forces as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” A driving force behind the AUMF was Saddam’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction — allegations that were later revealed to be untrue. A few months later, the first planes flew over the Iraqi border, kicking off a “shock and awe” war that would kill hundreds of thousands and cost more than $800 billion.
Even after the war ended in 2011, the 2002 Iraq AUMF lived on. As the Obama administration carried out its campaign against ISIS in 2014, officials cited the 2002 Iraq AUMF as one of the legal justifications for strikes in Iraq and, later, Syria. When President Donald Trump took power, his administration followed suit, leaning on the 2002 Iraq AUMF in 2018 to justify the continued use of force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while reserving the right to also use it “elsewhere.”
That threat should be cause enough to repeal it. But by allowing the authorization to remain on the books, lawmakers in Congress are also abdicating a core constitutional responsibility. Our nation’s founders vested Congress with the sole power to decide when and where our country goes to war, and this power was granted for good reason: They knew that in a democratic system of checks and balances, no one person should have unilateral say over matters of war and peace.
Fortunately, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are becoming increasingly convinced of this truth. In the last session of Congress, a bipartisan bill to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF passed the House floor by a vote of 268-161. In the Senate, similar legislation from Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana garnered 51 cosponsors.
This support has carried through to the 118th Congress — in our conversations with other lawmakers and grassroots advocates alike over the past few weeks, we’ve heard a loud growing chorus of voices calling for repeal of the 2002 Iraq AUMF. From libertarian activists to veterans to pacificist organizations, from constitutional conservatives to progressives, there’s a broad and united call for action that transcends party or faction.
The Senate is doing its part. On Thursday, the chamber cleared a key procedural hurdle to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF, setting the stage for a full floor vote next week. If and when the measure passes, the House should move swiftly to hold a vote on its companion bill, HR 932. President Joe Biden has indicated that he’ll sign the legislation if it reaches his desk, and we should take him up on that as soon as possible.
Americans are desperate for a sign that Congress can still work across the aisle to bolster our democracy and create a safer world. By repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF, lawmakers can demonstrate their commitment to the constitution and to reining in endless wars. Let this 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq be more than a moment of remembrance. Let it serve as an inflection point in reasserting congressional authority over war, and let it be a reminder that Republicans and Democrats can still join hands for the sake of our constitution and country.
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