By Representative Barbara Lee
Last year marked a new, tragic milestone in the war on Afghanistan. Now, children born after Sept. 11, 2001 — young people with no memory of how America's longest war began — are old enough to enlist in it.
Seventeen years is a long time. I know that, because 17 years ago I was the only member of Congress to vote no on the war. On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress gathered to vote on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). I stood alone — 420 to 1 — in opposing this blank check for war.
At the time, I feared that Congress was rushing into a military operation with an overly broad, poorly defined mission and no exit strategy. I didn’t want to stand alone, but I knew that someone had to speak out and urge the use of restraint.
This legislation set the stage for perpetual war. And 17 years later, we’re no closer to realizing peace than we were on Sept. 14, 2001. At the heart of the AUMF are 60 words that authorize any president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks...or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism.”
These words have been used to justify military actions utterly unrelated to the attacks on Sept. 11 — including operations against the Islamic State, which did not even exist in 2001. The AUMF has no end date, no geographical constraints and no target. It can be used by any president, to wage war anywhere, at any time, against anyone, in perpetuity.
And that’s exactly what has happened. The Congressional Research Service has found that the 2001 AUMF has been used 41 times in 19 different countries by three presidential administrations. And those are just the unclassified instances.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Congress wrote this law — we have the power to change it. The only thing that’s missing is the political will. I’m proud to say that I no longer stand alone in opposing this blank check. I have colleagues on both sides of the aisle — from the House Liberty Caucus to the Congressional Progressive Caucus — who want to see this AUMF come off the books.
There are 300 Members in the US House of Representatives today who weren’t serving in Congress on Sept. 11. That means two-thirds of Congress has never voted on the war in Afghanistan. This isn’t fair to Congress or the American people. And it’s certainly not fair to our troops, who risk their lives to fight in a war that we refuse to debate.
Last year, we finally made some progress toward repealing the 2001 AUMF. In the House Appropriations Committee, I introduced an amendment to a defense funding bill that would have sunset the 2001 AUMF 240 days after enactment — giving Congress eight months to debate and vote on a new authorization. In a bipartisan vote, my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee supported this amendment and agreed it was long past time for Congress to do its job.
The vote in favor was nearly unanimous. And for a moment, it looked like we were on track to finally get this blank check for war off the books. But then, in the dead of night, former Speaker Ryan used an underhanded legislative maneuver to strip my amendment from the bill without a vote.
From a 326-page bill, my amendment was the only piece that was touched. Despite the wishes of my Democratic and Republican colleagues — not to mention the American people — my amendment was removed from the bill.
But this setback made one thing clear to me: this AUMF repeal will happen, sooner or later. It’s not 420 to 1 anymore. The majority in Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — want to have a debate and vote on our wars. They’re tired of kicking the can down the road.
Since Sept. 11, 2001 the United States has spent more than $5.6 trillion on our wars. That’s trillions of dollars that could have been spent repairing our roads, rebuilding our schools, caring for the sick and feeding the hungry. And every day we fail to address these wars, we lose ground not just on the international stage, but on our priorities here at home. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us: “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
That was a different war. A different generation. But today, we find ourselves wrestling with the same questions. How can we fund unlimited dollars to fight a war 7,000 miles away, but not afford adequate care for our service members when they come home? How can we give hundreds of billions of dollars every year to the Pentagon, while the children of Flint drink out of pipes poisoned by lead? How can we continue to funnel billions of dollars into military slush funds to fund a war without end, and then ask Americans to sacrifice funding for food stamps, Social Security and Medicaid?
It’s time for Congress to have some tough conversations about the cost and consequences of our forever wars — in terms of dollars squandered, credibility diminished and lives lost. Congress has been missing in action for far too long. It’s time to start changing that.
Representative Barbara Lee is a member of the United States House of Representatives from the State of California. She serves as the co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee. She was the only member of Congress to oppose the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force.
This article is part of our new report, "A New Vision: Gender. Justice. National Security." See all the articles from our report here.
Photo: Landscape in the Pamir Mountains, Afghanistan. Photo credit: Huib Scholten/Unsplash