Soon after the United States delivered a major blow to Iran’s terror infrastructure Friday by ridding the world of Qassem Soleimani, top general of the country’s brutal Quds Force, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her intention to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to take further military action against Tehran.
Even after several Democrats indicated they wanted to be more deliberative with any such effort following Iran’s retaliatory strikes on U.S. service members in Iraq on Tuesday, she persisted in holding a vote on a war powers resolution Thursday. “The administration took this action without the consultation of Congress and without respect for Congress’ war powers granted to it by the Constitution,” Pelosi said of the Soleimani strike in explaining the purpose of the measure.
During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, he never received his own congressional authorization in the form of an AUMF for military operations he launched.
The speaker’s insistence on introducing the resolution even after tensions eased up Wednesday suggests she believes strongly that presidents must have a specific authorization for the use of military force (known as an AUMF) from Congress before engaging in military action. But she doesn’t believe that. The Democrats’ attacks on Trump for the Soleimani strike simply show, once again, that their views of executive power depend on the party membership of the executive in power. That’s no way to protect Americans’ national security.
During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, he never received his own congressional authorization in the form of an AUMF for military operations he launched in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Yet, Pelosi didn’t complain then about this complete disregard for Congress’ authority.
Instead, Obama simply relied on the two AUMFs granted his predecessor — the 2001 AUMF authorizing strikes against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and those who aided them, and the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War — as sufficient justification for just about any military action he wanted to take in the Middle East and North Africa.
As such, Trump actually has the better argument that the existing AUMFs gave him the power to target Soleimani in Iraq, where he was visiting when he was killed. (The administration in any case contends that the strike was justified on the grounds of self-defense since the Pentagon said Soleimani coordinated strikes that killed an American contractor in Iraq on Dec. 27, approved a siege on the U.S. Embassy there and came to the country to plot more American deaths.)
Indeed, the 2002 AUMF directed the president to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” One can argue about the legitimacy of extending that permission to targeting Soleimani, as he was Iranian. But the Pentagon has noted that he’s responsible for the deaths of more than 600 American troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, not including those killed since then by the Iraqi proxies he controls. And he was assessed to be about to engage in further attacks against U.S service members there.
What is less arguable, however, is that Obama’s repeated invocation of Congress’ 2001 AUMF launching the “war on terror” was more of a stretch for his less-focused undertakings throughout the region. That war powers resolution authorized the president to use force only against “those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
Its language seems clear, doesn’t it? It’s easy to see how this allowed President George W. Bush to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan, who had sheltered and aided Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And it’s easy to see why it passed both chambers of Congress with only a single vote against it.
A dozen years later, in 2013, Obama declared that the war in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda was coming to a close, and he promised “to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.” But that never happened. Instead, he used it to justify military action against various other terrorist organizations in countries as far afield as Libya, Yemen and Syria.
In Libya, he actually at first tried to claim that he didn’t need any authorization at all. In 2011, when he launched the attack that would eventually unseat Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the White House argued it didn’t require congressional approval to enforce a cease-fire in the Libyan civil war because “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve U.S. ground troops.”
Perhaps his administration came to realize how weak this argument looked after those operations led to Libya’s violent change of government. Because when Obama’s Pentagon announced in 2016 that it had launched a new attack on Libya, this time against the Islamic State militant group, and a reporter asked what gave it the legal authority to do so, a press secretary replied, “Under the 2001 authorization for the military force,” and added, “Similar to our previous airstrikes in Libya.”
ISIS didn’t even exist when the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs were written. But Obama used the resolutions to justify hitting the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, as well as Libya. At least the Trump administration can point to the Taliban — which was certainly in the minds of members of Congress when they approved the 2001 authorization — as connected to the Soleimani action. Iran gives the terrorist group shelter as well as direct aid in the form of money, fuel and weapons, with the Quds Force commander a lynchpin in that operation.
It’s been time for Congress to debate the president’s war powers and what use of military force is allowed since the last administration. But that’s not the debate the Democrats have wanted.
Furthermore, Democrats this week have been particularly angry that Trump “assassinated” someone — terrorist mastermind Soleimani — without congressional approval. But the use of targeted killings steadily increased during the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership didn’t make a move to stop them. In eight years, Obama ordered more than 500 drone strikes that killed thousands of people, including a few hundred civilians. One of them — another terrorist mastermind, Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in Yemen in 2011 — was an American citizen.
These examples of military action with little, if any, connection to the resolutions used to justify them show it’s been time for Congress to debate the president’s war powers and what use of military force is allowed since the last administration. But that’s not the debate the Democrats have wanted to have — making it clear that their current gambit is merely to punish Trump. Like the Republicans, they make constitutional arguments when they’re not in power and sidestep the Constitution when they’re in power.
The founders understood that power corrupts, which is why they made sure not to invest it in a single person or body. Congress usually only remembers — and tries to restore — its power when the executive branch is held by the opposite party. But principles should come over party, and never more so than when the stakes are as high as war.