For the first time in 50 years, a Senate committee has voted to repeal decades-old war powers measures that twice launched the U.S. into war with Iraq, giving a green light to then-President George W. Bush's ill-fated plan to invade that country to topple its despotic president, Saddam Hussein, under the later-discredited justification of ridding that country of weapons of mass destruction never found.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday voted 14-8 to repeal both the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) with supporters saying it was long past time for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority to declare war.
Three Republicans -- Todd Young of Indiana, Ohio’s Rob Portman, and Rand Paul of Kentucky -- voted with all the panel’s Democrats for repeal, with some Republicans who opposed the move Wednesday arguing that though they support scrapping both AUMFs, the time is not right amid rising tensions with neighboring Iran.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who along with Young has worked for years to gain the support of their colleagues, noted that no current action by the U.S. is using either AUMF "as the legal basis for any current U.S. military activity, nor are they needed to justify the detention of even a single detainee now in U.S. custody."
"I ask this committee to send a clear and bipartisan message that a Congress that initiated military action against Iraq can also recognize the end of hostilities against Iraq," Kaine said.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has also fought for years to repeal the costly war, applauded the impending, bipartisan congressional action.
"It’s much easier to start a war than to end a war," Paul said. "I think the vote today is not meaningless and symbolic. It is to say that we do not give any president, Republican or Democrat, permission for a large land scale war in Iraq. We’re taking away that permission. If you want to go back, come before the people with a big important vote - we all say it’s the most important vote -- well, let’s take it back and make it part of the Senate."
The panel’s chairman, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, in encouraging support for repeal, told members, "I believe it would be a grave mistake if we do not act now to repeal the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs. As we heard very clearly from the administration yesterday in testimony from the deputy secretary of state and two senior lawyers on this matter, repeal of these will have no impact whatsoever on our operations or detention activities."
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had told lawmakers on Tuesday, "I want to state clearly that the Biden-Harris administration believes the 2002 authorization for use of military force against Iraq has outlived its usefulness and should be repealed, and the administration has made clear that we have no ongoing military activities that rely solely on the 2002 AUMF.”
Menendez argued that any U.S. personnel on the ground in Iraq now would not be affected "because they are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government," so, he said, no related mission in the Middle East would be affected.
And President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi announced after meeting last week in Washington that the U.S. mission in Iraq would transition by year’s end from one of combat to an assist and advisory role.
Nevertheless, the top Republican on the committee, Jim Risch of Idaho, argued against repeal, saying that though rescinding these Congressional approvals now would have no practical effect, doing so risks sending a dangerous message in a volatile part of the world, particularly with regard to Iran.
"I would disagree that this has no useful purpose, and I think that the purpose of this is to communicate our resolve in the region and particularly as it affects Iran," Risch said.
"There are people that are going to look at this and say, 'Aha, the U.S. is getting weak in the region. The U.S. is not committed. They’re not keeping the same commitment it’s had to the region,'" Risch claimed, adding that it would do no harm to allow the authorization to merely "sit on the shelf" so as not to risk "sending a message that we are not committed to the region and committed to protecting our troops and American interests."
"I understand what the vote is here and where this thing is going to go, but I really believe that it would be a bad message to send as far as repealing this AUMF that gives even the slightest inclination ... that we’re backing away from this," said Risch.
But Young, a Navy and Marine Corps veteran, countered that though he, too, shares his colleagues’ concerns about Iran, these two Iraq-specific AUMFs are not relevant to that consternation.
"I believe that the threat from Iran is so significant and so different from the wars since 9/11 or Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, that we must pass a new AUMF should the situation require it," he contended. "Those advocating for leaving the 2002 AUMF in place as a means of deterring Iran, when that was in no way the intention of this authorization, would be building on past abuses and advocating for precisely the kind of expansion of war power authorities that ultimately makes Congress and this committee irrelevant."
The repeal action now moves to the full Senate for its expected approval, a decided change in sentiment from decades since the twin military campaigns in Iraq. But it does follow overwhelming public sentiment in recent years that has turned against America’s long wars in the Middle East.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who announced earlier this year that he now supports the repeal of both AUMFs, reiterated Wednesday that a vote by the full chamber would happen later this year.
"Allowing an authorization for military force to just lie around forever, is an invitation to a future administration to use it for any military adventurism in the region," Schumer said in a floor speech. "Americans frankly are sick of endless wars in the Middle East. Congress simply has to exert more authority over matters of war and peace, as we all know the Constitution prescribes."
The House in mid-June passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote a repeal of both outdated authorizations, so once the full Senate acts, the repeal effort would then move to President Biden who has signaled support.
The last repeal of a military authorization came in January of 1971 when Congress voted to end the then-deeply unpopular 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
One AUMF -- issued in 2001 to allow then-President Bush to order the invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- is still in effect. Some lawmakers are targeting that for repeal potentially later this year, but there is not the same bipartisan support for that move at this time, particularly as the situation in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has withdrawn its forces, spirals increasingly into chaos at the hands of the Taliban.