Wednesday, March 29, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

House Passes Repeal of Iraq War Authorization

The law has been used to launch strikes not authorized by Congress as recently as last year, when former President Donald Trump killed Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The House voted 268-161 Thursday to repeal a law passed after the Sept. 11 attacks that gave the executive branch the green light to use U.S. military forces to engage multiple countries across the globe for two decades.

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, passed with a sole dissenter — Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a California Democrat. In her speech on the House floor back then, Lee cautioned her fellow lawmakers not to “embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.”

Lee’s words proved to be prophetic for American military involvement overseas, with the U.S. targeting 37 military operations in 15 countries in the 19 years since that vote. Former presidents from George W. Bush, whose administration backed the legislation when it was introduced in 2001, to Donald Trump have utilized the authorization for various strikes against terrorist regimes and groups.

Now Lee is the sponsor of legislation repealing an updated 2002 authorization passed by Congress giving the go-ahead for Bush to invade Iraq and attack Saddam Hussein's government. 

After Bush gave a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Congress passed the 2002 authorization — but with much less support than the initial 2001 version. The final 2002 authorization passed with the approval of only 81 Democrats, with 126 voting against the legislation. 

Most recently, Trump used that 2002 authorization to target and kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 following attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The repeal of the 2002 authorization is shorter than the 60-word sentence making up the original bill. On Thursday, Lee recited a partial history of what led to the repeal effort: 18 years ago, in front of the infamous “mission accomplished” banner backdrop, Bush told Americans major combat activities in Iraq had ended. In 2011, then-President Barack Obama brought most troops in Iraq back to the U.S. But still the authority remained on the books, “vulnerable to misuse because Congress has not acted to remove it,” Lee said. 

Once the Iraq War started, Lee and over 80 members of Congress -- including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, another California Democrat -- formed the Out of Iraq Caucus, which helped garner congressional support for withdrawing troops from the Middle Eastern country. Lee said Thursday that hundreds of thousands joined in a nationwide protest of that “unnecessary, immoral war of choice,” working year after year for the drawdown of those forces. 

“I share all this history, not because of nostalgia, but we have to remember why this authorization was passed: because 87% of members of Congress now of the current House were not here to vote on this AUMF in 2002,” Lee said. “The Constitution requires that we cannot appropriate funds for armies for more than two years and yet for almost two decades, we have failed to revisit these AUMFs.”

She added: “To this day, our endless war continues, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives in a war that goes way beyond any scope that Congress conceived or intended.”

Congressman Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said while he agreed war should not be on autopilot and supported repealing both the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, he and other members of his party felt the repeal should include a replacement. 

McCaul also decried the process in which Democrats had used to move the bill to the floor, noting there hadn’t been consultation with the State Department or other agencies on the bill’s drafting. 

“So, it is confusing to me that we are jamming through a standalone repeal without basic due diligence, without consulting the State Department, the Defense Department, the intelligence community, without consulting the government of Iraq and our coalition partners and allies,” McCaul said. 

Thursday’s vote comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s announcement in April that U.S. forces would completely withdraw from Afghanistan this fall, ending the decades-old conflict that has been overseen by four U.S. presidents. America invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and has stay involved in the nation’s conflict with terrorist forces like al-Qaida and the Taliban in some form ever since. 

Biden, the first president in 40 years to have a member of his own family in the armed forces, committed to drawing down all 13,000 U.S. troops in the country by the terrorist attack's 20th anniversary in September. 

In a statement Tuesday, Lee said that she has been working to end "forever wars" and “put matters of war and peace back in the hands of Congress."

“Once we pass a repeal of the 2002 AUMF, we must keep up our fight to repeal the 2001 AUMF so that no future president has the unilateral power to plunge us into endless wars,” Lee said in a statement.

Senators are set to take up the legislation next week. It is unclear how much support the repeal effort has in the upper chamber.

The White House supports the repeal, citing a lack of ongoing conflicts that rely on it. In a statement, the Biden administration also hinted at the president’s commitment to repealing other “outdated authorizations” and replacing them “with a narrow and specific framework appropriate to assure that we can continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats.” 

“In working with the Congress on repealing and replacing other existing authorizations of military force, the administration seeks to ensure that the Congress has a clear and thorough understanding of the effect of any such action and the threats facing U.S. forces,” the statement said.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.