1. Update
  2. U.S. Wars & Militarism

Why Congress Needs to Reassert its Power to End Endless War

Annual Meeting 2019

By Heather Brandon-Smith , November 14, 2019


FCNL's legislative director on militarism and human rights, Heather Brandon-Smith, delivered this address at Annual Meeting 2019.

Good morning everyone. I am thrilled to see you all here today and I am so excited for you all to be spending the next two days lobbying to end endless war. I’ve been working on this issue for the last six years and this year, we’ve really seen some unprecedented steps taken to rein in the president’s ability to start new wars and to bring an end to the seemingly endless wars that we’ve been in for over 18 years.

We’ve been at war now for over 18 years. This is the longest that the United States has ever been at war. It is longer than World War I, World War II, and the Civil War combined.

I want to start by painting a bit of a picture of the situation we’re in now with these endless wars. As I mentioned, we’ve been at war now for over 18 years. This is the longest that the United States has ever been at war. It is longer than World War I, World War II, and the Civil War combined.

Now as you know, this all began following the devastating attacks of September 11. Three days after these attacks, Congress passed a law that authorized the president to use military force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them. And this was really al Qaeda, who carried out the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban, who harbored al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

This law that Congress passed is called the 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” which is abbreviated to the 2001 AUMF.

But while the 2001 AUMF was written to be fairly limited, three presidents from both sides of the aisle have stretched this law to take the country into additional wars against more than half a dozen groups, all over the world. In fact, at last count, the 2001 AUMF has been used for 41 different military operations in 19 countries. These operations range from combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Niger, to drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, to detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. This outrageous stretching of the 2001 AUMF is why it is known as the “blank check” for war.

And there is also a second AUMF that is still in effect. This is the 2002 Iraq AUMF. This second AUMF was passed to authorize the war against the Saddam Hussein regime. And the reason the American people were given for going to war in Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to the United States.

After nearly two decades of fighting, it has become clear that this approach simply isn’t working.

Now, as we all know, that turned out to be false. Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the U.S. went into Iraq and removed Saddam from power in 2003.

These endless wars that we’ve been fighting since 2001 have had devastating consequences. To give you a feeling for the costs of these wars, according to figures released yesterday by the Brown University Costs of War project, approximately eight-hundred thousand people have been killed, including some 330,000 civilians. Over 7,000 U.S. service members have also been killed, as well as nearly 8,000 U.S. contractors. Fifty-three thousand seven hundred U.S. soldiers have been injured and more than 300,000 have suffered traumatic brain injury. And that’s not even counting the hundreds of thousands who have returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illness.

And what’s more, after nearly two decades of fighting, it has become clear that this approach simply isn’t working. It hasn’t made the United States safer. We’ve created more enemies around the world, turned local populations against us, and seen an increase in terrorism attacks.

And the price tag for all of this? Well, according to a report that was released just yesterday, the post-9/11 wars have now cost 6.4 trillion dollars.

But in the face of all of this devastation, all of this failure, all of this waste, the tide is finally turning. We are finally seeing Congress start to take action to help bring an end to endless war.

[FCNL Advocacy Teams have] been instrumental in getting us to the place we’re in now: We have a provision to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF in the NDAA and we have growing, bipartisan support to have this provision become law.

As I’m sure a lot of you know, the Constitution gives Congress the authority to decide whether the country chooses war. The framers of the Constitution specifically placed the power to declare war in the hands of Congress—not the president.

And Congress has finally begun to reassert this important constitutional power. It has finally begun to act to stop the president from deciding when the country goes to war and to rein in endless war.

Now this brings me to the unprecedented opportunity we now have before us and what you’re going to be lobbying your senators and representatives on. You should all have a copy of this legislative ask in your packets. And you’ll see that the ask for this year is to support repeal of the 2002 Iraq AUMF.

Now, to give you a bit more background on this ask, in July this year, for the first time since the 2002 Iraq AUMF became law, a chamber of Congress has voted to repeal it. The House of Representatives adopted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act—the NDAA—to finally repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF. But the Senate passed its own version of the NDAA. And the Senate’s version does not include a provision to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF. So right now, House and Senate negotiators are working to reach a final, compromise version of the NDAA. And we need that final NDAA to include the House provision to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF.

Now, I want to give a shout out to FCNL’s incredible Advocacy Teams, who have spent all year working on AUMF repeal. Their work has been instrumental in getting us to the place we’re in now: We have a provision to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF in the NDAA and we have growing, bipartisan support to have this provision become law.

We have the power to really win on this! And I am so excited that you’re all here to lobby on this issue.

So I want to give you three reasons to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF:

First, it’s no longer relevant: The 2002 Iraq AUMF authorized war against the Saddam Hussein regime. That war is long over. Saddam was overthrown in 2003 and in 2011, President Obama declared the Iraq War over and brought U.S. troops home. It’s the responsible course to repeal this outdated, irrelevant AUMF.

Second, it’s not needed for current operations: The Trump administration has even admitted that the 2002 Iraq AUMF only “reinforces” the authority under the 2001 AUMF for some operations. So then why do we need to repeal this law if it isn’t needed? That brings me to the third reason:

To prevent its abuse: Repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF would prevent this president or any future president abusing the law—misinterpreting it—to justify a new war that Congress hasn’t authorized. And this is a real concern. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have claimed that the 2002 Iraq AUMF is broader than what Congress originally intended. Just last year, the Trump administration said that the 2002 Iraq AUMF authorizes force against threats stemming from Iraq but also threats to Iraq, from—and I quote—“Syria or elsewhere.” And with the administration’s recent posturing about attacking Iran, there is a real concern that leaving the 2002 Iraq AUMF on the books could provide an avenue for the president to justify attacking Iran under that law.

This is not what the framers of the Constitution intended when they gave Congress the power to declare war. They did not intend for presidents to repurpose old AUMFs to justify new wars.

This is not what the framers of the Constitution intended when they gave Congress the power to declare war. They did not intend for presidents to repurpose old AUMFs to justify new wars. So repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF would really be a critical first step towards Congress reasserting its constitutional war powers and saying, “we’re not okay with the president twisting a law that was passed 17 years ago to take us into new wars.” The president doesn’t get to decide if we go to war. We get to decide this.

So now, we have a real chance to finally repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF. And one of the things that makes this such a unique opportunity is that the House provision to repeal this law has very broad bipartisan support. Indeed, the Heritage Foundation recently released a report supporting repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF—because it’s the constitutionally conservative thing to do.

But to make this happen, your senators and your representatives need to hear from you, from their constituents.

And our legislative ask—set out in this blue box here—is for your senators and representatives to urge Armed Services Committee leadership to include the House provision repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF in the final NDAA. These leaders are the decision-makers. They are the members of Congress who will decide if we finally repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF or if we leave it on the books for the president to abuse.

Now I wanted to finish up with some tips on lobbying on this issue.

First of all, when I lobby on repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF and when our Advocacy Teams lobby on this, we have often found that members of Congress and their staff will mix up the 2001 AUMF, which was passed after the 9/11 attacks, with the 2002 Iraq AUMF. Keep an ear out for this happening and if it does, gently tell them that you’re talking only about the 2002 Iraq AUMF. That is the law that isn’t needed for any ongoing operations.

Second, you might get some pushback from your member of Congress or their staff who tell you, “I’m not one of the leaders of the armed services committees, I’m not involved in these negotiations, there’s really nothing I can do on this issue.”

But that’s not true! When you get that kind of pushback, you want to respond by respectfully asking if your senator or representative could talk to the leaders of the Senate or House Armed Services Committees and ask them to keep the provision to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF in the final NDAA. Don’t let them get away with saying there’s nothing they can do! But be kind and respectful with your response.

Finally, I wanted to add a little note about what this could mean for our future work on ending endless wars. If Congress finally repeals the 2002 Iraq AUMF, this will be the first time since 2001 that Congress has acted to repeal any AUMF. This would be a momentous development and it would open the door to building more support for repealing the 2001 AUMF. Once Congress has repealed one AUMF, we’re just that much closer to getting them to act on the other one. They’ll have done it once, they can do it again!

I want to conclude by saying that I am just so thrilled you are all here lobby on ending endless war and repealing the 2002 Iraq AUMF. We really have such an incredible opportunity here to finally get rid of this law and to take a critical step towards ending endless war.

Thank you.

Tell Congress:

Repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF and Prevent Future Wars!

Act Now 
Background The 2002 Iraq AUMF: What It Is and Why Congress Should Repeal It 

There are currently efforts in the House and the Senate to repeal the 2002 Iraq Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

Heather Brandon-Smith

  • Legislative Director, Militarism and Human Rights

Heather Brandon-Smith is FCNL’s Legislative Director for Militarism and Human Rights. Heather leads FCNL’s work to repeal the 2001 authorization for war, promote respect for human rights and international law, and reduce U.S. armed interventions around the world.