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The House Takes a Gigantic, Meaningless Step To End Forever War

The repeal of the 2002 AUMF is a nice gesture, but it's nowhere near enough.

U.S. Navy Sailors load an AGM-114 Hellfire missile onto an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter.
U.S. Navy Sailors, assigned to the “Vipers” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 48, load an AGM-114 Hellfire missile onto an MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter on the flight deck of the guided-missile destroyer USS Jason Dunham (DDG 109).
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay

Earlier today, the House of Representatives voted to rescind the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legal document that was initially used by George W. Bush to justify his invasion of Iraq.

Since then, the 2002 AUMF has been used for all sorts of inventive things, like airstrikes, and also airstrikes. These strikes have killed ISIS militants, civilians, Al Qaeda militants, other civilians, and also Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general who was visiting Iraq. (They’ve also killed a lot of civilians, just in case you missed that.) The repeal of the 2002 AUMF is a good thing, clearly, but almost every party involved in its dissolution admits that it is also functionally meaningless. It is a window dressing of peace pinned up neatly over a gaping hole of war that the United States will continue to throw money into for years and years to come.

Sorry for the melodrama. I’ll let the Biden administration itself tell you how vapid this all is, in their own words, from a Statement of Administrative Policy earlier this week:

The Administration supports the repeal of the 2002 AUMF, as the United States has no ongoing military activities that rely solely on the 2002 AUMF as a domestic legal basis, and repeal of the 2002 AUMF would likely have minimal impact on current military operations.

The surface-level explanation for all this is that there is another AUMF, passed in 2001, that grants the executive branch far broader permissions to wage war. That’s the one that Rep. Barbara Lee famously cast the sole vote against. (Lee has also been a driving force behind getting rid of the 2002 AUMF.) This is the next target, and, if eliminated, might actually somewhat affect the current way the United States determines who and how to kill people overseas.

But even without the 2001 AUMF, American presidents have a massive arsenal of legal justifications and precedent for dropping state-of-the-art munitions purchased from Lockheed Martin on anyone they please. The Justice Department has an entire branch called the Office of Legal Counsel, whose job in recent years has largely been to find justifications for presidents to use war powers. (The OLC’s justification for an intervention in Libya was later applied to Trump’s strikes in Syria, etc.)

Around and around we go. The 2002 AUMF repeal will go to the Senate on Monday night, where Chuck Schumer favors passing it. It’s a nice gesture! But the road to reigning back executive war powers is a whole lot longer than this, and as yet, has barely been tested. I remain skeptical that the Biden administration will make any substantive progress down that road, but I’d love to be wrong.