Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How Biden Benefits From Limiting His Own War Powers

| Mar. 11, 2021

Reforming the Authorization for Use of Military Force isn't as altruistic as it seems.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it wanted to work with Congress to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) and replace them with a "narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars." In other words, President Joe Biden appears to want Congress to restrict the authorization under which U.S. forces are currently operating and thus constrain his own ability to order them into action. Why would he do such a thing?

A bit of background: The 2001 AUMF was passed a mere three days after the 9/11 attacks (with only one dissenting vote in the House of Representatives). It was narrowly focused on al Qaeda, and it authorized the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." The 2002 AUMF authorized the use of force to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and was in effect the green light for the George W. Bush administration’s ill-advised invasion of that country in 2003.

Unfortunately, these two laws have been stretched beyond recognition in the years since they passed. The 2001 law was originally intended to authorize military action against al Qaeda itself, but Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump invoked it to justify a wide variety of other actions, including attacks on the Islamic State (which was fighting against al Qaeda at the time) or the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Similarly, even though the war in Iraq was declared officially over in 2011, the Obama administration invoked the 2002 AUMF as an "alternative statutory basis" for the campaign against the Islamic State, and the Trump administration claimed that the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020 fell under its aegis as well.

Extending congressional authorizations in this way makes a mockery of the rule of law as well as the more fundamental principle that presidents should not be able to go to war on their own or expand military actions beyond their original mandate. It makes perfect sense, therefore, for Biden to seek to replace these outmoded justifications with legislation tailored for our present circumstances and military requirements.

But at another level, Biden's actions might seem rather puzzling. No matter what Biden or his advisors personally believe about the wars the United States is currently fighting, why would they favor a "narrow and specific framework" that might limit their freedom of action down the road? Indeed, given that Congress—and especially the Senate—is currently balanced on a knife's edge, why would any president want to create a situation where he might want to order military action and be stymied by the inability to command a majority on Capitol Hill? Even if only hypothetical, why would any sensible leader seek to tie his own hands in this way?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“How Biden Benefits From Limiting His Own War Powers.” Foreign Policy, March 11, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt