Congress Needs to Stand Up and Reclaim its Authorities on Making War

May 11, 2017

Anyone who has served in the U.S. armed forces is familiar with completing an Operations Order (OPORD). Spelling out the situation, mission, execution, sustainment, and command and control enables our Army to “fight and win our Nation’s wars.” For our troops in harm’s way in Syria right now, the mission has not been spelled out and Congress, by ignoring its responsibilities to authorize and exercise oversight over the use of military force, is responsible. History has shown us that when Congress neglects its duty, our troops are at an avoidable strategic disadvantage.

For a prime example of this dynamic, we need look no further than the Vietnam War. In the jungles of Southeast Asia, the United States gradually built up its activities with no clear direction from Congress. The result of this legislative negligence was a bloody, deadly, and tragic waste of resources. One does not have to look hard to see the parallel in Syria. Over the years, a steady trickle of troops were committed as the United States sought to train “moderate rebels.” Where does this path lead?

In the wake of the failures of Vietnam, Congress attempted to reassert its authority over war-making with the 1973 War Powers Resolution. Seeking to prevent further failures in Syria, Congress likewise needs to reclaim its war powers through a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The time for this is now.

The 2001 AUMF, with its vaguely worded authorization targeting the 9/11 attackers and their associated forces, forms the legal justification for many of our current military operations in the Middle East, including those directed against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The mismatch between the 2001 AUMF approved by Congress and the reality of current operations on the ground is not just a theoretical constitutional issue. Congressional negligence and neglect on this front is a recipe for failure.

Congress must take ownership of the fact that the United States is currently engaged in a different war than the one it authorized 16 years ago. The Global War on Terror was focused on ousting al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from Afghanistan and shutting down affiliated jihadist cells in Southeast Asia and North Africa. Today, ISIL and al-Qaeda compete around the globe for affiliates, whether by attempting to establish cells in more stable nations such as India or taking advantage of the increasing number of failed states such as Yemen and Libya. While ISIL shares the same Salafi-jihad ideology as al-Qaeda, it is a distinct organization with different capabilities, leadership, structure, and strategies.

There are clear differences between defeating ISIL in 2017 and defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001. These different dynamics were most recently on display in the U.S. attack on the Shayrat Airbase in Syria. Are American actions in Syria focused on defeating ISIL or regime change in Syria? Was Trump’s cruise missile strike retaliation for crimes against humanity or was it aimed at reestablishing deterrence against chemical weapons use? Listening to various senior administration officials in the days following the attack, all of these were offered as explanations. It was clear that no objectives had been elucidated and agreed upon even within the administration.

The White House seemed to settle on the positon that the purpose of these strikes was to send a signal to our adversaries that the use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. This may be sensible, but unfortunately it has nothing to do with the aims laid out in the 2001 AUMF. Under what authority were these strikes carried out?

The landscape of threats and challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere indicates we are fighting in a very different battlespace than the one envisioned in 2001. We need a foreign policy that reflects that reality. And should that foreign policy require the use of force, Congress must take the lead and reclaim its constitutional prerogatives by debating and passing a new AUMF. Critics might argue that this will only hamstring our military from actually winning on the battlefield, but this is not the case. Congress can and should craft an AUMF that is narrowly tailored and spells out the mission clearly, but also gives our leaders room to adapt and ensures that our commanders have reasonable autonomy with respect to rules of engagement.

America’s men and women in uniform deserve decisive leadership from Congress. When the United States commits these lives and resources to an effort, we need to ensure that it is not in vain and make clear that America intends to win. We cannot determine if we have won if we do not define what winning looks like. Now is the time to define clearly what an “America First” foreign policy looks like. It is time to reverse Obama-era failures to take our enemies seriously. But the United States should also reject the neoconservative approach that envisions American military power solving every problem in the world to affect regime change and take on doomed nation-building, projects.

A new AUMF would place war power authority squarely where the founders intended it: in the hands of Congress. The founders rightly understood the serious nature of waging war and the lives and resources our government asks to be put on the line in the process. War needs buy-in from the people and should be openly debated by Congress where the people are most directly represented. Members of Congress have sworn to uphold the Constitution and need to begin acknowledging the weightiness of that oath with respect to authorizing combat, declaring our wars, and providing accountability for victory.

It could not be more important for Congress to perform this most basic duty of reclaiming its constitutional war powers. Executive branch overreach, no matter who is president, should be of concern on both sides of the aisle. The status quo of allowing for uninterrupted war without following the constitutional framework has paved the way for the imperial presidency, making Congress complicit in taking away the voice of the American people. This dereliction of duty threatens to tear apart the fabric of our republic, to the dishonor of all who have fought to defend and preserve our freedoms. Now is the time for deeds, not words. Congress must act and support our president, our troops, and the American people by providing an updated AUMF specific to the fight against ISIL.


Congressman Warren Davidson (R-OH) was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a June 2016 special election. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he had the honor of serving in the 75th Ranger Regiment, The Old Guard, and the 101st Airborne Division.   

Image: U.S. Congress