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In Washington, Who Decides the Next Intervention?

In Washington, Who Decides the Next Intervention?

Thursday, 22 July, 2021 - 10:00
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Many people are watching the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but there is a bigger debate in Washington about future US military interventions in the Middle East.

In response to public opinion, Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress want to make it more difficult to start a new war in the region. One of the key texts still used for legal justification of American military action there is the 2002 formal authorization to wage war against Iraq. The 2002 law had support from Democrats and Republicans and was legal cover for President George Bush to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime. President Obama used the law to justify the military campaign in Iraq against ISIS in 2014. President Trump used it to justify the airstrike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis.

The House of Representatives, including 49 Republicans and 219 Democrats, voted on June 17 to cancel it. The Senate this week will begin the process of voting to cancel it also. The White House under Biden supports canceling the law. According to a White House statement June 14, other American laws provide legal justification for ongoing military operations.

Not everyone in Biden’s Democratic Party is comfortable with other legal justifications, however. After Biden launched airstrikes against Iraqi militias in February and again in June, important Democrats criticized him for not consulting with the Congress first.

The American constitution is clear: only Congress can declare war, including declaring a war against foreign militias. However, the American constitution also clearly states that the President commands all military forces.

Biden didn’t point to the 2002 authorization about Saddam Hussein to justify his airstrikes. He asserted instead that according to the Constitution he commands the military and he took steps to defend American soldiers. In the end, this argument is about the authorities of the Congress compared to the President.

Important senators like Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s vice president candidate in 2016, support cancelling the 2002 authorization and they want Congress to vote to approve long-term military operations.

Iran is also in this debate. Each time Trump and Biden launched airstrikes against militias loyal to Iran, some members of Congress, especially Democrats, worry that airstrikes on the militias will start a war against Iran without the prior agreement from Congress.

Some conservative Republican politicians like Ron Johnson and Ted Cruz defend Biden’s right to attack these Iraqi militias without restraints from Congress. They are pressuring for the Congress to replace the 2002 authorization about Saddam Hussein with a new law so that the White House can launch preemptive attacks against Iran and its allies legally without approval from Congress.

It is interesting that many of these Republicans in Congress still claim that Biden won the 2020 election through fraud, and now they want to give a president they implicitly call illegitimate authority to take unilateral military action against Iran. Most Democrats, however, will reject this proposal.

More important is the effort to cancel the 2001 Congressional authorization to George Bush to strike groups involved in the 9/11 attack. The legislation aimed at al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Through twenty years, presidents used this 2001 law to justify legally military operations in 18 countries against groups such as al-Shabab, ISIS, Hayat Tahrir Sham and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

US military chief of staff General Mark Milley told a Congress session on June 23 that the 2001 authorization is vital for many American military operations far from Afghanistan. Some members of Congress, especially left-leaning Democrats, want to cancel the 2001 war on terror authorization to compel the President to seek new authorizations from Congress for new military actions against Islamic extremists.

An important budget committee in the House of Representatives last week voted to cancel the 2001 authorization. The representative who led the effort in the committee, Democrat Barbara Lee, was the only representative to vote against the 2001 authorization twenty years ago. Now she has allies who want to cancel it.

The committee vote will compel the entire House of Representatives to consider the cancellation, and the Senate will also need to vote. Many American politicians, especially conservative Republicans, reject tying the hands of the American military. A compromise agreement about cancelling the 2001 authorization will be difficult this year. But the debate shows the change in American politics.

Since 9/11 Congress didn’t challenge military interventions when a president launched them. After the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the legislative institution is discussing how to limit presidential military authorities in a way we have not seen since the end of the Vietnam war almost 40 years ago. The challenges, especially since it springs from Democrats, will make Biden more cautious.

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