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The AUMF: An Everlasting 'Zombie Authorization'


It's been called a zombie authorization that has enabled the forever war. After 9/11, Congress gave President Bush the green light to use military force in Afghanistan. For 16 years now, that authorization has been used for anti-terror operations - most recently in Niger. There's now a proposed bill that would set limits on who the U.S. can fight, where, and for how long. Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has reservations.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: If you limit the time duration, who can confidently say when this broader struggle is going to be over, you know? I don't see how you can schedule an end. Second, if you start letting the extremist groups define themselves by their names, and we only can go after certain specific groups, they're just going to change their names. And we've seen that, for example, with the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria that's had at least three or four names over the last four years. And then geographically, I think that perhaps is the one place where you could imagine closer consultation. If you're going to have a thousand or 500 people in Niger, perhaps the Congress needs to be involved in a discussion a little bit sooner.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Hasn't Congress neglected its duty by relying on this original bill?

O'HANLON: Well, as you know, Congress hasn't declared war since World War II. And, also, Congress does provide oversight each year not only through the kinds of hearings that it's conducted to make sure that it, you know, approves of the basic strategy in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq but also through the annual appropriations process. This is, of course, a longstanding debate in American foreign policy that really kicked into high gear in Vietnam. In the Iraq War, even though it's now seen, you know, in a very controversial light, it's worth remembering that Congress actually approved that war with roughly 50 percent Democratic support. So whatever our mistakes in Iraq, it's hard to think that it was Congress shirking its duty or the executive stealing prerogatives from Congress that was the main issue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Isn't the time limit important? Because it doesn't mean that they can't reauthorize. It just means that, at some point, it has to come before Congress - that this isn't going to be a blank check in perpetuity.

O'HANLON: Well, it's true that if I had complete confidence in the way Congress does its business these days, I might be less stressed out about a time limit. But this is the same Congress that, however much I respect the legislative branch, has done things for example like threatened to, you know, shut down borrowing. And by not authorizing a debt-limit extension, there's been a fair amount of brinkmanship. But I really do worry that somebody could hold up a reauthorization over some unrelated issue. And that's part of what makes me nervous - that this debate could easily do more harm than good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned the Iraq War. Obviously, Congress, as you note, actually did pass a separate authorization for military force in Iraq. Congress had to own it. We know the record of every person who voted for it and against it. Isn't that a good thing?

O'HANLON: Yes, I think that is a good thing when we're talking about a major operation and a major new initiative. I am not convinced that the Niger operation rose to that level. But I think to wait for the whole Congress to approve a new resolution each time you might need to make a tactical adjustment could again cause more harm than good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Thank you very much.

O'HANLON: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.