Dear Congress: Take Your Power Back

Dear Congress: Take Your Power Back

US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 05/29/14
By Michael Shank and Elizabeth Beavers

It’s time to end the president’s ability to wage nearly limitless war.

Congress finally appears to be realizing that it has been providing neither checks nor balances to the president’s war powers for the last 13 years. While Senate debate was heating up last week on how and why America wages war, nearly 200 representatives voted to repeal an authorization that allows America essentially unbridled freedom to wage war on anyone, at any time, and anywhere.

The authorization that the House was voting to repeal is the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or “AUMF,” and serves as the legal foundation for American counterterrorism policy. The strong, bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives demonstrated the growing frustration that legislators and their constituents feel toward America’s longest war and the troubling practices that accompany it.

The vote came almost exactly one year after President Barack Obama promised to work toward sunsetting the law as part of a scaled-back foreign policy. In his May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, the president also promised to end the war in Afghanistan, close Guantanamo Bay, and constrain drone policy – all policies enabled by the authorization.

Yet, one year later, the president’s promises appear hollow.

American drones continue to terrorize people around the globe, striking relentlessly and often arbitrarily. The secrecy of America’s drones operations continues, with the U.S. government refusing to acknowledge strikes, investigate civilian deaths or compensate victims after horrific stories come to light (e.g. the Yemeni wedding party destroyed by American drone strike last December).

In Guantanamo, the situation remains equally grim. No clear plan has emerged from the White House to close the prison. Inexplicably, the 77 men who have been cleared for transfer remain imprisoned. Only a dozen men have left the prison since the president’s speech, and 154 total detainees are still trapped within Guantanamo’s extrajudicial walls.

The most troubling sign that the Obama administration is not on the path toward fulfilling its promises, however, was visible in last week’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the purpose of which was to re-examine and rethink the wide-ranging scope of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Despite the president’s expressed desire to work with Congress to “refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate,” administration officials at the Senate hearing were incapable of identifying precisely with whom the U.S. is at war, articulating what powers the president possesses with or without the law, or laying out a serious idea of what the future of American counterterrorism should look like.

To no avail, senators from both sides of the aisle attempted to elicit answers from administration attorneys on Congress’ role in war making, the scope of American military power, and the future of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Administration answers were elusive and unclear, sparking visible irritation and alarm in the Senate.

Couple this Senate rebuke with the strong 191-member vote for repeal in the House of Representatives, and the message to the White House should be clear: deliver on promises made one year ago by closing Guantanamo, reining in drones, and repealing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Had the president pursued a sounder policy as promised, we would be witnessing less conflict overseas, not more. Indiscriminate drone strikes are creating more enemies than they are destroying. Flagrant contraventions of the rule of law – by locking up men for over a decade without reason – are illustrating that American interests are in spreading fear, not freedom, throughout the world. The authorization’s limitless application, which has become a blank check for wars for two presidents, is eroding American values of separation of powers, accountability and morality.

These maligned policies are fundamentally transforming the way the United States engages with the world. Rather than operating in a perpetual state of war fueled by fear, we must invest in that which incentivizes any adversary to join, not reject, international norms – something that can only be done through development and diplomacy, and compliance with the rule of law.

This is the only true way to become the victors in the face of global lawless terror. As the president said one year ago, “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.” How true.

Before U.S. militarism expands even further across the globe, another drone strike kills dozens of civilians, and another man gets locked up indefinitely without due process, it is time for the rest of the House to take the power back while they are still able. It is time to sunset the Authorization for the Use of Military Force.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Elizabeth R. Beavers is the legislative associate for militarism and civil liberties at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.