Time to Shred the Blank Check

How a single sentence changed the face of war in the U.S.

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Illustration by Ry X

In the days following 9/11, Congress voted to approve 60 words that would fuel the American war machine for years to come. The Office of the President has used these 60 words to justify drone strikes, black site detention and military occupation of other countries. It’s time for these words to be struck from our country’s laws.

An Iraq-specific Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was signed into law in October 2002. Most recently, the AUMF was used as justification for the president’s authorization of the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

The original AUMF was signed by President Bush just seven days after 9/11, with a lone dissenting vote in Congress from California Representative Barbara Lee. The unilateral powers granted to the president by the AUMF have been described as a “blank check” to wage war, allowing the president to take military action without approval or oversight from Congress.

Recently, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged to call for a vote to repeal the 2002 Iraq-specific AUMF and has plans to replace the 2001 AUMF. We cannot settle for this compromise. The AUMF has had an irreparable death toll and remains an ineffective mechanism of countering terrorism — it must go.

When rhetoric of the AUMF and military intervention gets caught up in domestic politics, we forget the people who are most affected.

A woman stands in a field, picking vegetables. She is surrounded by her grandchildren who will watch her be blown away by a Hellfire missile strike. A 14-year-old Pakistani boy sits down for dinner after a long day of work when he and 17 other workers are hit by multiple drone strikes.

Between October 2001 and October 2018, military actions justified by the AUMF resulted in between 244,124 and 266,427 civilian deaths across Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s an average of 41 deaths each day, or about one every 35 minutes. This unacceptable brutality can no longer go unchecked.

If the cost of human life isn’t enough, between Aug. 8, 2014 and June 30, 2017, the Pentagon spent $14.3 billion on operations against ISIS. This amount could provide Medicaid to 1.4 million Americans, increase federal aid to public schools by 30 percent and double federal spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy, with $2 billion remaining. 

Illustration by Ry X

Despite sustained hysteria surrounding terrorism, policy experts argue that terrorism is in fact a manageable threat and thus there is no national security rationale behind the AUMF. Further, academic research suggests the military interventions often justified by the AUMF do not deter, but can actually prompt, radicalization. The AUMF is ineffective and dangerous, and it must be sunsetted before it is invoked again.

Every president who has been in office since the passing of the AUMF has stretched the legislation to its limits, with nothing to show but hundreds of thousands of murdered civilians and billions of dollars wasted. Nineteen countries, 41 individual instances of violent military interventions and no accountability. 

The War Powers Resolution proposed to tie President Trump’s hands when it comes to military interventions in Iran is a step in the right direction, but Congress cannot lose sight of the finish line. What’s needed is a complete repeal of the AUMF that would finally restore some level of accountability to the gross and indiscriminate waging of war.