End of US Authorization to Use Force in Iraq Does Not Mean Peace
Friday, June 18, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
New changes are taking place in American foreign policy. The House of Representatives approved a new bill on Wednesday that repeals the 2002 American Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The revocation plan has been supported by Democrats for years and has now gained great strength due to the supremacy of that party in the House.
The new legislation passed with a large majority (268-161), even taking many votes from Republican representatives. After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would take the bill to the floor later this year. Undoubtedly, the Democratic majority strongly favored passing the bill, but the broad support received by forty-nine Republicans demonstrates that it is a cause of common bipartisan interest today and cannot be reduced to a Democratic agenda. And this is for a simple reason: the 2002 authorization has become useless because current American activities abroad do not depend on it to take place.
In 2002, the AUMF had a specific target – the government of Saddam Hussein, against which the law allowed Washington to use military force to defend “US national security” and to “enforce all relevant” UN Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq. However, even after Saddam’s death, the law continued and has been constantly used to legally “justify” US military actions against targets that never had any ties with the departed Iraqi dictator. Virtually every enemy of American interests on Iraqi soil has become a target of the AUMF. So, with this law, the representatives do not seem really interested in peace, but in American legal security and in preventing the legislation from being used beyond its limits.
That is why many of those who voted in favor had reservations about the future of US policy in Iraq. Many of the representatives defend the AUMF to be replaced by a new, broader law that encompasses the current Iraqi reality. In addition, trying to ensure legal stability, Congress plans to gain greater control over war issues. According to the US Constitution, the declaration of war is the responsibility of Congress – which in practice has changed a lot in recent years, with congressmen granting greater war power to the White House, particularly after the 2001 incidents and the beginning of the global war on terror.
In other words, the change concerns specific bureaucratic and legal aspects of the structure of the American state and reflects conflicts of interest between lawmakers and the government, not a real concern with the reality of Iraq or the American soldiers. A great proof of this was the speech by Chuck Schumer himself, who stated that the end of the current law does not mean the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq, nor the end of joint operations with the Iraqi State against local militias, but only prevents the current government and those coming from “reaching back into the legal dustbin to use it as a justification for military adventurism”. According to Schumer, an example of this “military adventurism” can be found in the action that murdered Iranian General Qassim Soleimani in January 2020. Trump justified the operation with the AUMF, when there was no real justification for the act.
However, the opinion contrary to the current law is not unanimous. Before the proposal is taken to Biden it will have to go through the Senate, which is much more divided and polarized than the House of Representatives. The bill needs 60 votes in the Senate, which is not certain to be achieved. The opinion – mostly Republican – that the repeal would facilitate the activity of militias and terrorist groups prevails in a large part of the Senate. This is the case of James Inhofe, who states that “we used it [the authorization] to get Soleimani and there might be another Soleimani out there”.
Apparently, among Senate Republicans there still remains the view that the AUMF is of central importance to national security – a fact that seems to be changing among the Republicans of the House. But, at the same time, the Senate is also interested in bringing Congress more control over war issues, which means that what may prevail is a support for the end of the current permission under the condition of its replacement by a new law for Iraq.
Another interesting point is that there is an important topic in the republican speech, because, indeed, the end of the law could facilitate the activities of terrorist militias in Iraq, whose territory is disputed by several armed groups, including by ISIS. The contradictory point, however, is that the republican concern does not seem to be with the growth of terrorism, but precisely with the possibility of Iran increasing its influence over Iraq, as revealed by Inhofe’s words.
But, after all, will the end of the AUMF really prevent the US from freely acting against its enemies in Iraq? As long as the troops are there, in practice, the use of force will persist, whether there is a legal provision for it or not. In addition, American troops will have carte blanche for any type of operations as long as they are carried out in conjunction with the government – no longer by unilateral decision of the White House and, in this logic, the power of influence of American pressure on which decision Iraq will make in each case cannot be ignored.
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