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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this bill in their foreign policymaking to abuse military power, and why this joint resolution needs to be changed or repealed immediately.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. 

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Checking Biden’s Middle East Policy: a year in review 

By Maggie Manson

April 11, 2022

It has been a little over a year since President Biden took office and quickly began implementing his wide-reaching foreign policy agenda. A regional policy area that should be of great interest to the administration is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Looking back at some of the major political and humanitarian events that occurred in the region this year, it is interesting to look at the administration’s response, or lack thereof, to these developments. This piece will look back at some of the key events the region witnessed this past year, as well as examine scholars’ thoughts on Biden’s responses to these events. 

10 year Anniversary of the Arab Spring

The first notable event of 2021 in the MENA that we will look at was the 10 year anniversary of the Arab Spring protests. While protests in Algeria and Tunisia began in December 2010, the majority of countries involved in protests began in early 2011. This was a landmark movement for the region that resulted in stagnation or minimal reform in some countries, devolution to civil war in others, and full-blown regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

Some of the key countries where mass protests erupted, but little substantive change followed include Algeria and Sudan. In both of these countries, we saw similar demands and tactics of protesters who took to the streets and social media to call for regime change, economic opportunity, an end to corruption, and much more. While these protests were met with insignificant reform and government repression, they did not signify the end of demands for democratization as we would later come to see a reemergence of protests in Sudan and Algeria in 2019. We will look further into specifically the Algerian protests, also known as the Hirak protest movement later in this piece. 

In Tunisia, we saw protests result in the ouster of authoritarian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, accompanied by the emergence of a rich civil society and democratic development. In the period of transition, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet brought together four different civil society groups to mediate the new democratic process. Tunisia has seen 10 different governments since 2011 with generally free and fair elections and inclusion of a variety of parties. Tunisia has also seen the inclusion of Islamists in governing coalitions as the party Ennahda has been meaningfully included in the political process. Scholars would argue that this inclusion has led to the ideological and substantive moderation of Ennahda, who now labels themselves as Muslim Democrats rather than Islamists. The 2021 political crisis has put a pause to this progress, but we will explore that further soon. 

In Egypt, unlike in the previous two countries, initial regime change and democratization backslid into military rule. After the end of the 2011 protests, Egypt saw the emergence of a transitional government and a successful round of parliamentary elections from late 2011 to early 2012. These elections resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party: the Freedom and Justice party, winning the greatest number of seats as well as the role of Prime Minister. PM Mohamed Morsi and the FJP’s governing coalition were only in power for a little over a year as the military stepped in to remove Morsi and his government in July 2013. This coup d’état lead to the imprisonment, torture, and death of many members of the Muslim Brotherhood which was later deemed a terrorist organization by army chief and eventual authoritarian president General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. While democracy was not sustained in Egypt, this was a unique democratic opening for the country in response to widespread mobilization that will serve as an inspiration for future generations of Egyptians. 

What lessons can be learned from these protests ten years out? First, we see the power of social media to amplify movements to an international audience. Social media was becoming a widespread form of communication right at the dawn of the Arab Spring. This allowed protesters to spread their cause worldwide, as well as draw attention to the atrocities committed by the police and military in their repression attempts. The international circulation of these protests also put pressure on foreign governments to intervene. While much foreign intervention was indirect, there were still diplomatic pressures placed on many leaders to either resign or institute reforms to address the demands of protesters. There were also instances of direct foreign military intervention, as seen in Syria where Iran and Russia sided with the regime and Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the U.S. sided with rebel forces. This dynamic also played out in the Yemeni civil war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iran-back Houthi rebels. Both of these military interventions demonstrate how calls for regime change and reform can quickly devolve into proxy wars between foreign powers who partake in non-humanitarian interventions. The Arab Spring acts as a cautionary tale for foreign intervention where diplomatic intervention led to a positive outcome (i.e. Egypt and Tunisia), but military intervention worked to further destabilize the situation. Additionally, in the context of the Arab Spring protests, it is important to analyze democratic developments, backsliding, and general stagnation, as well as the U.S. response to see where the region is 10 years after sweeping democratic protests. I will explore two post-Arab Spring case studies, Algeria and Tunisia, to see where they stand today in terms of democratization. 

2 year Anniversary of Hirak Protest Movement

2021 ushered in the two-year anniversary of the Hirak protest movement in Algeria which resulted in the resignation of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and continued calls for further democratic reform. Algeria saw little reform in the wake of the Arab Spring, but protesters took to the streets again in February 2019 to protest Bouteflika seeking a fifth term. These protests resulted in Bouteflika announcing that he would not seek a fifth term and would step down. Instead of this announcement ushering in a new period of democracy, the country’s military-led regime was able to install a new president through rigged elections in late 2019. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected after extremely low voter turnout. 

Tebboune was able to utilize the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on protests, issue a curfew,  and altogether ban gathering in large numbers. Despite the regime’s repression, the movement has been able to utilize social media to spread awareness and mobilize in the face of difficulties. In October 2020, protesters re-emerged to commemorate the 1988 October pro-democracy riots, despite a continued ban on protests. Additionally, in February 2021, on the two-year anniversary of the Hirak protest movement, protesters took to the streets to signal that they would not be satisfied with minimal reforms, they wanted an overhaul of the government and the establishment of a lasting democracy. 

A key takeaway from the Hirak protest movement is that Algeria needs to reckon with its past before it can establish a democratic future. In a piece I wrote in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, I looked into the lack of transitional justice following the Algerian civil war of 1991-2002. Algerian experts and activists that I spoke with emphasized that the country needs to address its complicated past before it can imagine a democratic future. For additional context, the Algerian civil war occurred in the aftermath of a failed democratic experiment. In 1991, the Islamist group the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was presumed to win parliamentary elections so the military stepped in to cancel elections and reinstate a one-party state. This resulted in the FIS taking up arms against the state in a bloody 10-year conflict where many civilian victims of FIS and military violence disappeared or were killed. Many families still have no idea what happened to their loved ones, and the conflict has been weaponized by the government as a cautionary tale to not disrupt the regime. Any new government that is hopefully able to form from the protests will need to focus on transitional justice in order to heal the still-open wounds of the war. 

Tunisian Political Crisis 

In July 2021 we witnessed a political crisis in Tunisia where President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended the constitution in what critics described as a soft coup. By doing so, Saied essentially delegated all governing powers to himself and his close advisors, rather than the democratically elected parliament. Some of the motivating reasons behind his dismissal of the government were the halting economic conditions, the country’s handling of COVID-19, and accusations of corruption within the government, especially against Ennahda. Protests emerged to push back against this soft coup, but protesters were quickly met with a new curfew installed to curtail demonstrations. Many have drawn parallels between this crisis and the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état, especially given the military’s role in backing Saied. However, there are some key differences between the two cases that hopefully signal a different outcome for Tunisia. First, the actions taken against the government were by an elected official, rather than by a senior member of the military as in the Egyptian case. While Saied’s actions might demonstrate a consolidation of power, he has not entirely dismissed the democratic project. We saw him name Tunisia’s first female Prime Minister: Najla Bouden and called upon her to form a new government. With that being said, Saied has significantly elevated his powers in an unprecedented move since 2011, which demonstrates a salient threat to democracy. By limiting parliamentary power, Saied has made it increasingly difficult for the government to apply checks and balances to his presidential power, which will be a significant barrier to the reinstatement of the constitution. 

However, Tunisia has weathered and survived previous political crises since the establishment of democracy, most notably the 2013-2014 political crisis. This event arose from the assassinations of two prominent secular leaders and the rise of Salafist Islamist groups in the country, both of which sparked widespread protests against the governing Troika coalition that prompted Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to step down. This crisis resulted in the renegotiation of the constitution, which seems to be a likely outcome of the current political crisis as Saied has granted himself constitution-amending powers. The prospects for democracy to emerge from this current crisis might seem grim, but civilians have mobilized and taken to the streets to call for a return to democracy, coming out staunchly against Saied’s actions. These protests have been met with high levels of repression from the police, with the result of many protesters being arrested and/or injured with one recorded death

Scholars on Biden’s MENA Policy 

How has President Biden responded to these major events in his first year in office? Biden has promised to shift his focus to the Middle East and North Africa, prioritizing human rights and democracy promotion. Opposite to former President Donald Trump’s approach to the region, Biden has assured that he will not embrace diplomatic relations with autocratic rulers or tolerate governments’ human rights abuses. Expert Steven A. Cook has described Biden’s approach as “ruthless pragmatism” indicating that he will take a practical, realist method to middle eastern policymaking. In regards to democracy promotion in the context of the 10 year anniversary of the Arab Spring, Biden is focusing foremost on improving countries’ human rights records, rather than aiming for direct intervention and regime change. 

In Egypt, it is difficult to influence a social and political landscape dominated by the military or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, notes expert Mohamed Lotfy. This was made worse by Trump’s approach to aid that gave blindly to the regime and also Trump giving into the regime’s rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood by declaring the organization as a terrorist group. A useful tactic for the Biden administration will be to utilize aid, both economic and military, in a strategic manner, tying certain conditions to the receiving of aid. The Biden administration should also consider a critical approach to the Brotherhood and other opposition groups that have been the victims of regime violence. This does not entail blanket support of these groups, but instead support for the upholding of their human rights and the end of mass arrests, torture, and even killings of the Brotherhood and other opponents of the SCAF. 

In Tunisia, Biden’s response to the current political crisis needs to focus on putting pressure on Saied to reinstate the constitution and re-establish the country’s nascent democracy. Biden also needs to turn his attention toward the stalling economic conditions in the country and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, both being two key motivations for the protests that led to Saied’s actions. This could look like the provision of U.S. monetary aid meant to alleviate economic woes with conditional terms tied to the constitution being reinstated and Saied committing to upholding democracy. Also, the U.S. should extend its vaccine diplomacy campaign to Tunisia by sending vast amounts of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as medical supplies used to treat COVID cases in order to combat Tunisia’s acute public health crisis. 

In regards to the Algerian Hirak movement, Biden first needs to work on strengthening relations with the regime to use diplomacy to work towards democracy in the country. The U.S. and Algeria have strained relations as of late due in part to the establishment of an Israel-Morrocco (Algeria’s neighbor) relationship garnered by President Trump’s decision to acknowledge Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. This relationship has caused distress to Algeria which tends to hold a pro-Palestinian position in regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Diplomatic measures suggested for Egypt and Tunisia cannot be a possibility in Algeria until baseline relations are improved.

What do scholars think about Biden’s Middle East policy? In TRIP’s Snap Poll XV, scholars were asked to grade President Biden on his performance in Middle East Policy. Results were generally positive with 30.7% giving Biden a B, 19.1% giving a B+, and 12.8% giving an A-. 

This is a good starting point to see where scholars stand on Biden’s Middle East policy, but to further understand their perspectives on this matter, I’ve referred to a survey fielded by the  University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University known as the “Middle East Scholar Barometer.” 

When asked to reflect on the Arab Spring and the likelihood that protests will return, 30% of scholars answered that the uprisings are likely to return within the next ten years. Another 46% responded that the uprisings never stopped and are still ongoing in different forms, as we see in the Algerian Hirak movement. These answers are a positive sign for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa as scholars are still generally hopeful about popular uprisings that have the power to inspire change. When asked about the state of U.S. power in the Middle East compared to a decade ago, the results were less positive in terms of U.S. foreign policy goals. 75% of respondents answered weaker than a decade ago, showing that scholars are not confident in the U.S.’s ability to impact change in the region. Nevertheless, given the developments seen in the region in 2021, this year is likely to be an important year for the Middle East and North Africa as the Tunisian political crisis continues to unfold, and the Hirak movement continues to call for regime change in Algeria. Additionally, looking at the outcomes from the Arab Spring ten years later, and given the scholarly opinion that protests are likely to return, we will hopefully see further calls for democracy and human rights in the region. It will be interesting to see how these situations continue to develop and what Biden’s response to them will be.