Congress moves to repeal the Iraq war authorization, 20 years later

Two soldiers in camouflage carrying rifles beside a single-story mud house.
US soldiers patrol the town of al-Qahtaniyah in Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on March 14, 2022, | Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a significant symbolic move, but US troops are still there, and other parts of the forever war continue.

The Senate, 20 years later, has repealed the outdated legal authorizations for the US’s wars in Iraq. It’s mostly symbolic, but it has some real-world implications.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted 66-30 to repeal the 2002 and 1991 authorizations for the use of military force in Iraq. The Biden administration supports the repeal, but the measure has a tougher path in the House.

It is significant that lawmakers would remove a piece of the scaffolding of America’s forever wars in the Middle East and would prohibit a future president’s abuse of the legislation. It also shows that Congress is willing to exercise its constitutional powers when it comes to war. The bipartisan effort is commendable.

But it’s not enough.

The repeal of the 2002 authorization for the use of military force won’t address two major ongoing dynamics that ensure that, even as President Joe Biden has ended the forever war in Afghanistan and has curtailed drone strikes, the war on terrorism continues.

First, the post-September 11 authorization that Congress approved in 2001 as the basis for US global counter-terrorism operations remains on the books and endures as the legal framework for ongoing US military efforts. It has been used in at least 22 countries. It’s the justification for the current presence of US service members in Syria and Somalia, thanks to the White House’s expansive interpretation of Al-Qaeda’s associated forces that now includes ISIS and militant groups that didn’t yet exist when the authorization was passed. But it’s been more difficult to muster consensus about sunsetting this 2001 authorization, as it’s been used more broadly, including by the Biden administration.

Second, it’s not likely to affect the 2,500 US troops in Iraq. The official combat mission there has been over for more than a decade, and they’re training and assisting Iraqi troops under security cooperation agreements and possibly under the 2001 authorization. But the contours of US security assistance are amorphous and can lead to a creeping mission. Experts say there isn’t great clarity on the full range of US operations in Iraq right now.

The Biden administration said earlier this month that the repeal of the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs “would have no impact on current US military operations.”

Still, even if the repeal is insufficient, it matters, and it will set guardrails for future US presidents. Lawmakers are finally addressing these longstanding authorizations that have the potential for misuse by the executive branch. As Katherine Ebright of the Brennan Center for Justice put it, “Congress has the responsibility, has the power, to weigh in on matters of war and peace, and it does not do that often enough.”

America’s initial 1991 war in Iraq is so old that I’ve found memorabilia from the time — like Desert Storm trading cards — stacked in antique stores. But the 1991 authorization for the intervention is still in effect.

Same with Congress’s 2002 authorization to use military force in Iraq, the text of which begins with a lengthy preamble about Saddam Hussein. It empowers the president to use military force against Iraq largely in the context of decades-old United Nations resolutions regarding Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration lied about to justify the invasion and were never found. It’s difficult to say that’s relevant today given that the US military intervention there ousted Hussein so long ago.

But in January 2020, then-President Donald Trump, with some controversy, used the authorization as the basis for the assassination of the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, who at the time was in Iraq.

Trump authorized the strike on Soleimani without consulting Congress — and it shows why a repeal is significant. “It’s removing a potentially dangerous tool that may be misused by a future administration, particularly to fight Iran in the Middle East,” said Brian Finucane of the International Crisis Group. “So it’s preventing potential future mischief by an administration interested in doing an end-run around Congress.”

Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the repeal in the Senate. The measure is being championed by progressives and conservatives, as well as veterans groups, faith-based groups, peace groups, government oversight groups, and transparency groups, according to Heather Brandon-Smith of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “There’s a huge coalition of organizations who support this repeal,” she told me.

One reason that it has taken so long for Congress to repeal the Iraq war authorization is that legislative efforts have been coupled with the 2001 authorization that the US is still using in many countries. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was considering the bill, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) added an amendment to repeal the 2001 authorization, but it was voted down by 20 other senators.

Because the executive branch does not rely on the Iraq authorizations to conduct ongoing operations, it won’t make an operational difference, according to Finucane, who previously worked in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser. “This is really the lowest of low-hanging fruit,” he told me, “The much more significant reforms will come with respect to the 2001 AUMF, where there’s currently no real movement from either the executive branch or Congress to reform that long-outdated war authorization for the war on terror.”

Nevertheless, the repeal vote might spur a bigger discussion of the fact that there are US troops in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia — ongoing operations that don’t get mentioned by President Biden but stand in glaring contrast to his commitment to ending endless wars.

Maybe by reminding Congress and the American public that these authorizations can come off the books, there can be a renewed focus on the more difficult task of repealing, sunsetting, or reforming the 2001 authorization for the use of military force.

Update, March 29, 1 pm ET: This story has been updated twice, to reflect a procedural vote and the Senate vote on repeal.

Correction, March 20, 9:30 am ET: A previous version of this story misstated the year Qassem Soleimani was killed. It was January 2020.

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