Since President Biden announced that he will withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the public and political debate has focused on whether or not now is the right time to go. I think we should be asking a different question. Why did staying at war remain so easy for so long, and how can we make it harder?
Ending war has become the riskier move, while keeping war going has become the easy out. Just as it did in the wake of Vietnam, it’s time for Congress to reassert limitations on our use of war.
To understand how easy it is to casually wage war today, look at Somalia, a classic case of war creep. The United States has been fighting there for a decade, without a declaration or any formal authorization from Congress to engage there.
The U.S. military entered Somalia under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, an overly broad congressional authorization passed days after the Sept. 11 attacks and intended to target its perpetrators. In Somalia, it was used 10 years later against an enemy, al-Shabaab, that did not exist when those attacks occurred. It has involved direct military operations, airstrikes and drone strikes, and training local security forces.
The Pentagon might deem these “light footprint” operations as something less than war, but U.S. troops, U.S. military contractors, and many more Somali civilians have died. And we’ve failed. Billions of U.S. dollars later, al-Shabaab remains a violent force and the local military still not capable of providing for the country’s defense. Ten years on, Congress has never debated whether Somalia posed a threat sufficient to justify the cost and risk of deploying there.
Somalia is only one of many of our small wars which have escaped public scrutiny. Placessuch as Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, and Syria are also on that list.
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The checks that were meant to make it hard to go to war have atrophied for lack of use. Now, the U.S. military has two ways to go to war with no public debate or scrutiny: the catchall congressional authorizations which have been allowed to apply to the widest possible range of threats, and the actions by successive presidents to expand the concept of self-defense.
Many members of Congress have quietly gone along with this shift. Haunted by a fateful vote for the Iraq War, they’ve become comfortable not having to make the hard calls themselves.
This is not how it was meant to be. War was meant to be reached deliberately and thoughtfully through coordinated political agreement. The Constitution grants the authority to declare war to Congress while making the president commander in chief. But coordinated action by these two branches today is rare, with Congress largely deferring to the executive.
In the past 75 years, we have deployed armed forces abroad more than 200 times without declaring war once, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
Congress can authorize military action without declaring war. That’s been the basis for most wars after World War II. But these actions that fall short of declarations of war are frequently abused, and the Korean War (1950-1953) had no congressional approval at all. Presidents have relied on it ever since to justify their own expansive use of presidential authority.
U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1964-1973) invited more scrutiny. Congress passed a resolution allowing President Johnson to use force, but protests led Congress to repeal it in 1971. By then, however, President Nixon had decided he didn’t need Congress’ permission. He justified the ongoing war as within his presidential authority to manage a drawdown. That drawdown began in 1969 and would continue for two years after Congress tried to bring it to an end.
Congress responded by passing the War Powers Resolution in 1973, to make clear that the president could not maintain troops on the ground without congressional approval for more than 60 days.
The Global War on Terror got around this limitation with excessively broad interpretations of what Congress had approved. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed two authorizations, one to target those who planned or assisted in the attacks, and the second for use of force in Iraq specifically. As of 2020, those two authorizations were the basis of U.S. combat operations in 12 countries, airstrikes or drone strikes in seven, and training and assisting foreign militaries in at least 79, with minimal public scrutiny of any of these activities.
How many of these military operations would be active today if Congress were required to authorize them specifically? Which ones would withstand the public scrutiny that comes with hearings and votes? Would we go to war as easily, or would we pursue other means to promote our interests?
A new War Powers Resolution could rein in our new generation of war creep by demanding answers. It could require that authorizations for war be time-bound and geographically specific, preventing casual expansion into new theaters and against new enemies, and ensuring that staying at war is a decision, not a default. We will likely continue going to war, but at least our political leaders would have to tell us why.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age,” published in May 2020.
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