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Shedding Light on the AUMF: Examining U.S. presidential application of the bill and its detrimental impacts

By Nathaly Perez

April 29, 2022

International scholars well understand that the act of declaring war has serious implications on foreign policy and global relations. When former President George W. Bush officially declared war on terrorism after the infamous 9/11 attack, a flip switched for the United States. The U.S. Congress quickly moved to enact a joint resolution called the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which granted Bush permission to retaliate against al-Qaeda for the terrorist attack in 2001. For the last 20 years, this legislation allowed past and current presidential administrations to strike Afghanistan, and in 2002 the same legislation permitted the military attack in Iraq. Over the last three presidencies, political parties between administrations have flipped between democrat and republican. Yet, there are still many similarities with how presidents interacted with the AUMF. The past three presidential agendas emphasized the importance of addressing and reshaping the war on terrorism. Ultimately, however, it was only Biden’s administration that maintained his foreign policy promise of officially removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. While this marks a stark difference between Trump and Obama’s foreign policy versus that of the Biden administration, all three are similar in that they continue to abuse unnecessary threatening military power through the AUMF. 

The war on terrorism under this joint resolution allows U.S. presidents the power to sidestep the authority of Congress by immediately enacting policies that serve to militarily intervene without any geographic boundaries. The AUMF was what gave Obama approval to assassinate Osama Bin Laden and what recently gave Biden approval to assassinate Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, an alleged Islamic State (IS) leader. It is important to understand why the resolution is still active and often used by the president in their foreign policy agenda. Below I discuss further implications of the AUMF policy, how previous and current presidential administrations have used this bill in their foreign policymaking to abuse military power, and why this joint resolution needs to be changed or repealed immediately. 

Implications of the AUMF 

Under the AUMF, there are three major factors that affect how the president can use this bill to support the war on terrorism. The first factor is that this joint resolution does not have a termination date. When it was passed by Congress in 2001, the legislation failed to include when this law should no longer be active and thus continues living today. The second factor is that it is unclear where the geographical boundaries lie with respect to where the president can launch attacks. This gives the president a limitless opportunity to target any country of their choosing. The last factor is that it is up to the president’s discretion to use force on any country, individual, or group they deem a threat without the need for approval from Congress. Ultimately, these three factors are too vague and because of this, the U.S. president has far too much control and flexibility over the use of military force.

Examining the way in which the last three presidential administrations used the AUMF in their foreign policy highlights the bill’s capacities. Moreover, it provides a political party comparison as I detected similarities between the three differing administrations.

Former President Barack Obama made it clear that he disapproved of the 2001 AUMF because it permitted attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. While in office, Obama sought, as he claimed, to repeal this law. Also during his time in office, he drafted his own version of the AUMF in 2015 to combat the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also recognized as the Islamic State (IS). He claimed that combating this group was a pertinent issue when he vaguely stated “If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland” as the reasoning for initiating this militant attack

  Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy

Obama’s version was distinct from the original AUMF in three ways. First, Obama’s draft differed from the original 2001 AUMF, which also initiated attacks in Iraq, specifically in that it included an explicit end date whereas the latter does not. Obama’s version of the AUMF was set to expire in three years on the day it was enacted. Another distinction between the two versions was that the Obama resolution claimed that it would not follow in the footsteps of the original AUMF. He stated in the resolution that he would not make the same mistake as the original bill and thus would  not “authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations.” Last, his version specifically stated the attack was on the militant IS group and their leadership personnel. In contrast, the 2001 AUMF does not explicitly state a country or militant group in which it is allowed to deploy military force without the need for approval from Congress. Obama recommended including the specificity in his version as one of the alterations that needed to be made if his administration and Congress came together to refine “and ultimately repeal” the 2001 AUMF, which is what he aimed to do

Obama’s application of his “refined” AUMF bill, however, was contradictory to what he claimed he was going to do. Even after enacting restrictions on the legislation, Obama eventually expanded the scope of his bill to attack other countries such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. He also operated several drone strikes in these countries under the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with no declaration of armed conflict to begin with, which violates his clearly stated restrictions on these kinds of attacks. In his two terms as president, Obama conducted 542 drone strike operations on several countries using a bill he claimed would be temporarily applied in restricted, specific situations concerning IS and would only attack Iraq and Syria. 

Considering Obama’s clear violation of American law and perhaps even international law, let us examine how international relations scholars reacted and their sentiment towards Obama’s foreign policy. Using poll data collected from the Teaching, Research, and International Relations (TRIP) Project at William & Mary, figure 1 shows that half of the scholars surveyed believe that Obama’s foreign policy produced greater benefits through inaction and nonintervention. Figure 1 also shows that approximately 75 percent of surveyed scholars believe that Obama’s foreign policy produced greater costs to the United States. 

Figure 1: TRIP – Snap Poll IV

It is reassuring to find that scholars do not favor Obama’s foreign policy. While this does not only concern the Middle East and Terrorism, this still demonstrates that the overall trend is that scholars disfavored Obama’s foreign policy

The TRIP project also collected poll data from scholars’ perspectives regarding Obama’s resolution of the AUMF. The data shows that most scholars thought that Congress should pass the AUMF in its current form, which implies there is some degree of support for the bill. While there was a general disagreement with Obama’s foreign policy among scholars, the controversial law AUMF was still favored by these IR scholars.  

Figure 2: TRIP – Snap Poll IV

In sum, Obama publicly stated intent to repeal the original AUMF and thus created a temporary version of the bill, which he claimed had the necessary restrictions that the original law lacked. He said the original bill was too broad in scope and gave too much militant power to the Executive branch. However, his actions demonstrate that he applied the AUMF as a means to executive power to do exactly what he criticized in the original bill. Also, the AUMF has not been repealed and is still active today. While the repeal was introduced to Congress by Senator Tim Kaine recently in 2021, the bill has yet to even pass the Senate. Obama failed to follow through with several cheap talk promises he made to the American people along with the 3,797 people, including 324 civilian lives lost in the Middle East who had to experience his unnecessary wrath of military power. Obama served two terms as President, so political scholars were well aware of his application of the AUMF. When asked for their perspective, they disapproved of Obama’s general foreign policy but were in support of the AUMF. What did scholars fail to learn from the Bush administration’s egregious war on terror after 2001 initiated by the AUMF? 

Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the perspective many claim Trump adopted regarding the AUMF. In 2020, his administration wrote a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) where they stated they  “strongly oppose” H.R. 2456,” which would repeal the 2002 AUMF. Considering Trump was strongly trying to protect it, it is evident that Obama never fully repealed the original bill. Trump’s administration credited the use of the bill to be because of the potential of terrorist attacks by Iran and Iraq’s IS. Considering the countless flaws in the AUMF, Trump’s SAP demonstrates his active support for the bill. Such a forward approach to the war on terrorism like Trump’s deserves further examination. Examining the TRIP polls, scholars were asked whether Trump abused or overstepped his foreign policy powers as president. The graph below shows that 73.87 percent of scholars believe Trump overstepped the foreign policy powers he was granted as president. Furthermore, the poll shows that an overwhelming majority of scholars surveyed believe Trump abused his foreign policy powers.  

Figure 3: TRIP – Snap Poll XII 

Trump and Obama differed in political party affiliations, regardless, both still used the bill at some point in their presidencies. Obama used the original bill to continue his attack on potential IS leaders after his version of the bill expired. And Trump used the law to “combat” Iraqi terrorist groups, specifically IS. Thus indicating that both administrations continued the active use of the 2001 AUMF to continue the treacherous war on terror. 

Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy

Obama and Biden both claimed they would end the war on terror in the Middle East. To be successful, this included officially removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan and repealing the AUMF. The Obama administration completed neither of those tasks. The Biden administration, however, has been slightly more successful. In 2021, Biden announced he would remove troops from Afghanistan and in the same year withdrew most American troops from their bases in Afghanistan. 

When compared to Trump’s foreign policy, a slight majority of scholars surveyed by TRIP shared their belief that Biden’s foreign policy would differ from Trump’s policy in regard to the use of military force. While no substantial arguments can be made until Biden’s presidency ends, it is interesting to question whether Biden’s foreign policy, especially regarding military force in the Middle East, mimics that of Obama and Trump’s administrations. From figure 4 below, it seems that scholars believe Biden’s administration will be similar to the former two presidencies. 

Figure 4: TRIP – Snap Poll XIV

 Biden’s Recent Attack

For the time being, we can examine what Biden’s administration has completed thus far in his presidency. As mentioned above, he successfully removed most troops from Afghanistan. More recently, he ordered the U.S. Special Operations Unit to raid the home of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, an alleged leader of the IS terrorist group in Syria. Because of the attack, thirteen people died, including al-Qurayshi when he detonated explosions once the raid was underway. Tragically, the people killed by the explosion were all women and children. So, why did Biden send a Special Ops team to raid a home full of women and children to kill a potential IS leader? He credited the escalating IS attacks in the Middle East, which included when IS released more of its members from prison. While this is a pertinent issue, there was no clear indication that the U.S. was in immediate danger by the terrorist group. Thus, Biden’s order for the military to raid a Syrian home was a violation of the AUMF on the count that it was not a timely necessity to ensure security in the U.S. This makes yet another president who applied the AUMF to evade Congress and initiate violence without the imminent need to do so. 

     Data Limitations 

With all data, there are limitations, and the survey results examined in this article are no exception. First, it is important to note that the surveys are relatively outdated. However, it was necessary to examine these results because they were closest in the timeframe to when the events in question occurred. Second, some of these questions are broad in topics and thus it is difficult to predict the exact reasoning behind respondents’ answers. This limitation may dramatically affect the way in which the data was perceived when writing this article. Because it is near impossible to know with certainty what respondents had in mind when answering some of these questions, we take responses at face value. Taking it as such, the questions and the way IR scholars responded are still relevant to the claims made in this article. These limitations may affect the reader’s confidence in the data and claims behind this article, which is reasonable. However, before dismissing this article please take a moment to reflect on the true and well-documented harms that the last three presidencies committed under the AUMF. 

        2001 AUMF – What Now? 

The purpose of this article is not to definitively conclude that the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations all share similar immoral, illegal foreign policies. It simply raises the question that this could be the case, with further analysis. Ultimately, the aim of this article is to provide a glimpse of the tragic effects of the AUMF and the way in which IR scholars reacted to these events.