Seventeen days after the Twin Towers fell in an apocalyptic mushroom cloud of smoke and ash, Congress passed with a single dissenting vote an “Authorization for Use of Military Force,” or AUMF, stating:
“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”
Sixteen years later, in the wake of four American military deaths at the hands of an ISIS-affiliated terror group in the lawless borderlands of Niger and Mali, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They were there to assure the senators that, as the Washington Post reported, “there was no need for a new war authorization to replace the one passed immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”
It didn’t matter that, so many years later, the U.S. was embroiled in wars and conflicts of every sort from the Philippines to Syria, Yemen to Niger, often involving groups that had nothing to do with either al-Qaeda or the attacks of 9/11. As Micah Zenko recently commented, it’s “depressing how frequently senators and Mattis say ‘the enemy’ to describe dozens of distinct groups in 19 countries.” For the leading officials of the Trump administration, however, Congress did its bit more than a decade and a half ago and anything else, as the secretary of defense testified, “could only signal to our enemies and our friends that we are backing away from this fight.” The repeal of that now-ancient AUMF, he added, would “create significant opportunities for our enemies to seize the initiative.”
In other words, both Mattis and Tillerson were telling the senators that, when it came to Congress’s constitutional duty to declare war, they should go home, get a good night’s sleep, and leave the well-AUMFed experts of the U.S. military to deal with the situation as brilliantly as they have for the last decade and a half. However, as TomDispatch regular Army Major Danny Sjursen, author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad, points out today in “Congress’s Romance With Cowardice,” in their advice the two Trump officials are actually well behind the times. When it came to Congress’ war powers, those senators had long ago gone home.
If you need evidence of this, you only have to consider Senator Lindsey Graham’s comment, typical of those of his congressional colleagues, in the wake of the deaths in Niger. “I didn’t know there were 1,000 troops in Niger,” he said. He meant, of course, American forces, adding that Congress simply doesn’t “know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing.” (If he had been reading TomDispatch when it came to the U.S. military in Africa, he would, of course, have known.) And consider that he’s a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Assumedly, Graham and the other senators didn’t know, for instance, that the 8,400 U.S. military personnel supposedly left in Afghanistan at the end of the Obama administration were actually 11,000-12,000 in number or that, in recent months-long fighting in the Philippine city of Marawi, taken by ISIS-affiliated guerillas, U.S. Special Operations advisers and American drones had played quiet but important roles. And on Afghanistan, thanks to new Trump-era military policies, the senators are soon likely to know even less. I could go on, but you get the idea. As Sjursen makes clear today, for the U.S. it’s now presidential wars to the end of time.