In recent months, President Obama has been pressured in the face of widespread public outrage to make two important speeches on national security. In May, he gave a lengthy talk on U.S. drone policy in which he placated public concerns by saying that America needed to get off “a perpetual wartime footing.” In January, unprecedented public focus on NSA surveillance led Obama to make another speech proposing several reforms and Obama again insisted we must “get off the open-ended war footing that we’ve maintained since 9/11.”
A simple way to get us off a permanent war footing would be to repeal the legislation that grants the president the power to wage war indefinitely against undefined enemies wherever they may exist in the world. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force authorizes the president “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.” Efforts in Congress to repeal or at least amend the AUMF have gone nowhere, and “the White House has taken no public steps to roll back the AUMF,” according to Gregory Johnson at Buzzfeed.
Johnson, in a lengthy report, references two recent U.S. raids to capture suspected terrorists “in countries with which the nation was not at war.”
More than a dozen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is what America’s war looks like, silent strikes and shadowy raids. The Congressional Research Service, an analytical branch of the Library of Congress, recently said that it had located at least 30 similar occurrences, although the number of covert actions is likely many times higher with drones strikes and other secret operations. The remarkable has become regular.
The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.
Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.
In May, Pentagon officials testified to Congress that keeping the AUMF in place is important to facilitate the ongoing “war on terrorism,” which will last “at least ten to twenty [more] years.” That is a far cry from Obama’s pledge to get us off a perpetual war footing. Like on so many other issues, Obama’s words are divorced from his actual policy.