Like so many, we vividly remember where we were 22 years ago this week as the horrific attacks of Sept. 11 unfolded. We still mourn the 3,000 lives lost that day and will never forget the irreparable damage the attacks on 9/11 had on our community. We remember the people taken too soon and pray for the families and communities forever changed.
In the days after 9/11, the president requested and Congress authorized a 60-word blank check for a war that continues to this day. In the weeks and months ahead of us, Congress is preparing to embark on its biggest reassessment of that war authorization, and in doing so, we must ask the hard questions and do the difficult work that we did not do all those years ago.
Twenty-two years ago today, one of us cast the lone vote against that 2001 war authorization and agonized over the vote, but came to grips with it during the very painful yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Yet, that is exactly what we did. The last thing the country needed was to rush into war after 9/11, or ever, without proper deliberation by the people — represented by Congress — as the Constitution intended.
The other of us co-leads an organization founded in opposition to the invasion of Iraq, authorized just one year after 9/11. While more members of Congress voted against that war, the debate was similarly rushed, and did not ask the necessary tough, hard questions.
Part of the genius of our Constitution is its system of checks and balances. One of the most essential is the separation between the president as commander in chief and Congress as the body that decides where and when our nation goes to war. Unfortunately, in 2001 and 2002, those checks and balances did not work as they should have. Instead of putting constraints on presidential war-making, Congress passed war authorizations that amounted to a blank check, enabling four successive presidents to wage a global war at a cost of trillions of dollars and countless human lives.
Two decades ago, Congress failed to fully do its constitutional duty to not just vote but fully debate going to war. The good news is that in the weeks ahead, Congress will have the best chance in years to finally get it right.
Congress is on the cusp of repealing the 2002 Iraq War authorization (and an earlier authorization for the 1991 Gulf War). Earlier this year, a large bipartisan majority passed its repeal in the Senate, and there is clearly a similarly large bipartisan majority in the House to do the same. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) should put the Senate-passed bill on the floor immediately, where it will pass and go on to President Biden, who has pledged to sign it into law.
The harder work will come on the 2001 war authorization. Congress hasn’t made up its mind about how to handle the 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) — and that’s OK. Publicly debating issues of war and peace is what Congress is meant to do. What is unacceptable is that we have allowed this debate to go on endlessly while an absurdly broad war authorization remains in place indefinitely, waiting to be abused and further stretched beyond its original purpose. The Constitution intends that our nation’s default stance be peace, and that to change that requires an act of Congress. Yet today, the situation is the complete opposite, and it’s time to fix that.
These questions are not academic. Twenty-two years ago, Congress voted to go to war without asking how long this war would go on, where it would be fought, how it would end and if there were other means to bring the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice that risked fewer unintended consequences. Before Congress gives this or any president such awesome power again, it must ask the questions we failed to ask then and weigh the hard lessons of what has and has not worked since 2001 to genuinely increase our, and others, security.
What remains then, is how we ensure that happens. Unfortunately, Congress has shown time and time again that while some may genuinely want to debate and do the hard work of deciding what, if any, war authorizations may be necessary, far too many are happier instead to live with the status quo of our endless wars. Thankfully, there is a ready-made option to finally force Congress to do its job: repealing the 2001 war authorization with a time-limited sunset.
Without the forcing mechanism of repeal, there is no powerful incentive to ensure Congress has the debates and asks the hard questions it has so long avoided. It also gives Congress time to demand the president, as commander in chief, make clear where we are already at war, against whom, and exactly what specific authorities he would like moving forward. It can be forgiven that the president lacked this specificity in the hours after 9/11, but there is absolutely no excuse for not having it now, 22 years later.
Some will say that you cannot repeal the 2001 AUMF without already having passed a replacement. But the last two decades have shown that without first repealing the 2001 AUMF, there is no urgency to force a decision on what comes next. And while there is a possibility that, after careful consideration and thorough debate over many months, Congress may not come to agreement on a new war authorization. But we should remember that such a possibility is exactly why the Constitution gives Congress this power. If Congress cannot agree we should be at war, then we ought not to go to war. And of course, in case of any truly imminent attack, the president would retain the right to defend the country. Failing to pass a new war authorization would not be the system failing. It would be our nation’s most fundamental system of checks and balances working exactly as it was designed.
There’s also a tremendous opportunity in turning the page on decades of endless war. We could reorient our national security to confronting the threats of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. From climate change to infectious diseases to the global rise of autocracy, few of these threats are served with a military-first war footing. We could also redirect some of the trillions being spent at the Pentagon towards a more balanced federal budget that invests in our communities and secures them against all threats, not just those that can be bombed.
Twenty-two years ago, our country endured a terrible attack, and Congress responded by going to war. Now, all these years later, it is time for Congress to finally restore our basic checks and balances and do its constitutional duty.
Barbara Lee represents the 12th District of California in Congress and Stephen Miles is president of the group Win Without War.
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