Intel: House Democrats call on Biden to reform Middle East war powers

California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee and House committee leaders wasted no time calling on the new president to rein in two-decade-old legislation on the authorization of military force.

al-monitor Democratic US Rep. Barbara Lee of California speaks during a news conference with members of the Democratic Women's Caucus prior to the State of the Union address at the US Capitol on Feb. 4, 2020, in Washington. Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images.

Jan 21, 2021

On the first full day of Joe Biden’s presidency, Democrats in Congress revived an effort to curtail the White House’s power to deploy troops to the Middle East.

Five House lawmakers sent a letter to Biden on Thursday calling on him to immediately repeal the 2002 Congressional Authorization of the Use of Military Force against Iraq and to work with Congress on repealing and replacing the 2001 authorization.

The laws originally granted US presidents carte blanche to militarily pursue the regime of Saddam Hussein and the plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks, but critics on both the left and right say US administrations have stretched the authorizations beyond recognition.

The 2001 and 2002 authorizations "were both passed nearly 20 years ago and bear little resemblance to the threats we face today,” the letter read. US forces have deployed to at least 20 countries, largely in the Middle East and Africa, under the 2001 authorization.

Debates over the authorization's continued validity are nothing new. Proponents of keeping the authorizations, such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis, have argued that Sunni jihadi threats to the United States are not limited to those who planned the Sept. 11 attacks.

President Barack Obama’s administration used the law to launch a war against the Islamic State group in 2014. The Trump administration built on that precedent, citing the war powers authorization to justify leaving troops in Iraq and Syria with the additional ulterior aim of hindering Iran’s access to the Levant. The Trump White House also cited the 2002 authorization in the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad last year.

The letter sent by lawmakers Thursday recommended that a new authorization include a sunset clause, clearly defined mission objectives and explicit limits on what parties can be targeted and where.

Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California is again spearheading the effort. The California congresswoman previously introduced amendments to the annual defense spending bill in July in an attempt to curtail the president’s war powers. Lee was the sole member of Congress to vote against the war powers authorization in 2001.

The Democratic co-signers of Thursday’s letter include the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, the chairs of the House Rules and Intelligence committees, James McGovern of Massachusetts and Adam Schiff of California, and the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Anthony Brown of Maryland. Politico first reported the letter.

Why it matters: President Donald Trump vetoed Congress’ attempts last year to rein in his war powers. In 2017, Mattis and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to dissuade lawmakers from repealing the authorization, saying it could disrupt the high-stakes multinational war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But major ground operations against the Islamic State have ended, and the Biden team is signaling it may be open to a different approach. On Tuesday, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said he would “be determined and committed to working on” a reform of the president's war powers.

As a presidential candidate last year, Biden encouraged Congress to override Trump’s veto of the war powers legislation and promised to “work closely with Congress on decisions to use force” if elected.

What’s next: Whether Biden will live up to his word remains to be seen. Obama issued a similar critique of the president’s war powers when he was running for office, but later launched an air campaign against the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 without congressional approval.

Know more: Elizabeth Hagedorn lays out the latest signs that Biden administration intends to put diplomacy first in its approach to Iran, rather than sanctions and military force.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings