America is nearing the point at which graduating high-school seniors have never known a United States not at war. These young people will have never boarded a commercial aircraft without first submitting to uniformed strangers wearing blue gloves scanning their belongings and touching their bodies. They have never engaged in an electronic communication free from potential eavesdropping by government-run super computers.
This strange new world is the direct result of the fear-of-terrorism that has gripped the United States since September 11, 2001; and if many in the United States Congress have their way, this state of affairs will be further enshrined in a resolution that will place our country on what amounts to a de factoperpetual war footing. The vehicle chosen for this action is a “new and improved” Authorization for the Use of Military Force (“AUMF”) to replace two earlier versions that have been stretched beyond any reasonable recognition by three Presidents.
The joint resolution now awaiting consideration in the Senate was crafted by lame duck Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee and Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine (D-VA). It would replace the 2001 Authorization that empowered President George W. Bush to pursue those responsible for the 9-11 attacks (but which has been mis-cited and mis-used ever since to justify all manner of foreign and domestic government actions, including warrantless surveillance of citizens’ electronic communications). The new version also would replace the 2002 AUMF that justified Bush’s invasion of Iraq without the constitutionally-required congressional Declaration of War.
If the intent of those supporting this new AUMF is to reduce the latitude presidents now enjoy in committing American forces in combat abroad, or to somehow restrict the government’s power to engage in constitutionally-problematic actions such as warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens, the Corker-Kaine resolution does not come close to meeting either goal. Where the previous AUMFs were stretched to justify fights far beyond 9-11 and Iraq (their stated purposes), this new one identifies five entities (and an unlimited number of “associated forces”) against which the U.S. President may at any time employ military force anywhere on Planet Earth.
Defenders of what is essentially a perpetual war authorization cite a requirement in the pending Resolution for the President to submit a quadrennial report about military operations covered under the AUMF. This is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Presidents regularly ignore such reporting requirements, and Congresses rarely hold administrations accountable for such failures. Moreover, in this instance, the only way the Congress could stop military action with which it disagrees, would be to pass legislation in opposition; the president would then veto the legislation, secure in the knowledge that only in the rarest of instances will Congress override such veto.
Making matters worse – but consistent with historical precedent -- the new AUMF comes without any “sunset clause,” which would force Congress and the President to at least debate the issue of committing the country to military action.
Whereas the earlier two AUMFs required presidents and Congresses to engage in at least semantic gamesmanship in order to fit their desired policies within the four corners of the legislation; this new version will demand not even such minimal effort. The Corker-Kaine Resolution discards even the barest fig leaf of legal or constitutional justification; it will gift the current and future presidents a prospective rubber stamp for whatever they decide to do in the name of “fighting terrorism” at home or abroad.
No rational person would question that fighting America’s enemies since 9-11 has become exponentially more complicated as borders have disappeared, and as technology has greatly magnified the ability of even individual actors to cause great harm in any city in any country across the globe. And none but die-hard pacifists would deny that the government must maintain a robust ability to defend against such threats.
In decades past, however, presidents, Congresses, and the American people possessed at least a measurable understanding of the need for checks and balances on the government when acting to meet serious national security challenges. It was that social contract that prevented and at times corrected abuses of unbridled power.
If the American people now choose to dispense with those checks and balances by way of this new Authorization for the Use of Military Force, then we will have moved perhaps irreversibly toward a state of perpetual war. Thus would America more closely resemble an elective monarchy than the representative democracy sought to be enshrined in the Constitution by our Founding Fathers.