Congress Is Not Ready to Leave the Middle East

On March 29, 2023 the Senate voted to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for Iraq, attempting to end the two-decade-long congressional authorizations for US military operations in Iraq. The vote came 20 years after the 2003 US invasion and occupation of the country, and more than a decade after former President Barack Obama formally ended the Iraq War in 2011. The vote was a major victory for Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN), who since 2019 have led Senate efforts to repeal the authorizations. The legislation now awaits approval in the House of Representatives, but more than a month after its Senate approval, it seems to have stalled. With Democrats and Republicans on the Hill bickering with each other and with the White House on ways to address the impending debt ceiling deadline, it is unclear when the future of the AUMF repeal will be decided.

While President Obama’s plan for a pivot to Asia led many in the United States and the Middle East to question the direction of US foreign policy, less attention has been paid to the role of Congress in this debate. If one looks at the 118th Congress, major developments in its first five months, such as the establishment of the inaugural House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, the Hill’s obsession with taking down TikTok, and near-unanimous votes expressing congressional outrage about Chinese spy balloons, make it easy to assume that Congress has pivoted to Asia, or more accurately, to China.

The Senate repeal of the Iraq AUMFs could be interpreted as a congressional pivot away from the Middle East because it terminates the authorization for decades of US military action in Iraq, a major theater for US military engagement with the region. But a closer look into both the Senate repeal process and ongoing debates in the House reveals that Congress is not yet ready to leave the Middle East. Rather, there exists a bipartisan majority in both chambers of Congress that seems intent on continuing the United States’ military involvement and counterterrorism operations in the region, particularly through the post-9/11 2001 counterterrorism AUMF.

Differences between the 1991, 2001, and 2002 AUMFs

It is important to note that the Senate has only voted to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Iraq AUMFs. The 2001 AUMF, more often referred to as the post-9/11 counterterrorism AUMF, still provides congressional authorization for US counterterrorism operations abroad, largely in the Middle East. The 1991 Iraq AUMF authorized then President George H.W. Bush to send US forces to liberate Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion in August of 1990. After the September 11 attacks and the George W. Bush administration’s provision of misinformation about Iraq and its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, Congress passed the 2002 Iraq AUMF, which authorized the president to use the US military to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” Since 2002, both President Obama and President Donald Trump have cited the 2002 AUMF as reinforcing their executive authority to authorize the use of force against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, and Trump cited the authorization again after the January 2020 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

The 2001 AUMF, meanwhile, differs from the Iraq AUMFs in its broad language and application. Passed just seven days after the 9/11 attacks, it authorizes the president to use US military force “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” While the Iraq AUMFs specifically mention Iraq, the 2001 authorization was purposefully left vague to allow US forces to target al-Qaeda, a transnational terrorist organization, anywhere in the world.

Secretary Blinken told Congress that the Biden administration is still using the 2001 AUMFs for legal authority.

This lack of specificity, as well as the language of “aided” and “harbored” has allowed four successive US administrations to cite the 2001 AUMF for what it labels counterterrorism operations in 22 different countries between 2001 and 2021, including US airstrikes in countries like Djibouti, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The 2001 AUMF has also been cited by the US government in support of counterterrorism operations in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, among others. As recently as March 22, 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress that the Biden administration is still using the 2001 AUMFs for legal authority. This key difference between the Iraq AUMFs and the 2001 counterterrorism AUMF has been a driver behind recent congressional debates about the United States’ military posture and its role in the Middle East.

Wariness about Leaving the Middle East

While the Senate’s repeal of the Iraq AUMFs happened rather quickly between the bill’s reintroduction in February and the final vote on March 29, there was an important legislative process around the 56 amendments that were attached to the bill. Although the bill passed in a 66 to 30 vote, with Republicans joining Democrats in the bipartisan effort, Republicans in the Senate routinely demonstrated their unwillingness during the amendment process to withdraw from the Middle East. The perceived threat of Iran and its allied militias operating out of Iraq was the main impetus behind most Republican senators’ opposition to the repeal. More specifically, Republicans argued that repealing the Iraq AUMFs would inhibit the United States’ ability to mitigate Iranian threats in the region. This argument, however, is not valid because the United States now has a military presence in Iraq that comes at the invitation of the Iraqi government and not solely because of the AUMFs, so their repeal would not mean that US troops would instantly withdraw.

The perceived threat of Iran and its allied militias operating out of Iraq was the main impetus behind most Republican senators’ opposition to the repeal.

Republicans’ perception of Iran as a threat was heightened during the bill’s amendment process and its final vote, particularly after an Iran-backed militia’s attack on US forces in eastern Syria, which killed a US contractor and reinvigorated Senate Republicans’ support for a continued US presence in the region. This perception revealed itself during the amendment process, and many of the Republican amendments that were attached to the bill, and that were ultimately voted down, centered around the threat of Iran. For example, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who ultimately voted against the repeal, introduced an amendment requiring the White House to certify to Congress that Iran had stopped providing support for terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a similar amendment, which would have continued congressional authorization for the president to strike against “Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq.” While these amendments ultimately were not included in the final version of the bill, they both demonstrate why a majority of Senate Republicans were against the repeal.

While the threat of Iran became a more partisan, and largely a Republican issue during the amendment process, the most significant amendment rejection was bipartisan and unanimous, and it made clear that a majority of senators, both Democrats and Republicans, are not ready to leave the Middle East. The parties joined forces to overwhelmingly reject, in an 86 to 9 vote, Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) amendment to include a repeal of the 2001 counterterrorism AUMF in the bill. This vote was ultimately more significant than the AUMF repeal itself because it revealed that the vast majority of senators from both parties still support congressional authorization for US counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and around the world.

More than a decade after President Obama announced that he was going to end the US war in Iraq, the Senate has symbolically taken back its power of congressional authorization for the use of force there; but this symbolic repeal is meaningless while the 2001 AUMF stands. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has introduced legislation to repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF, but the Rand Paul amendment vote suggests that this legislation is not likely to advance. The rejection of Senator Paul’s amendment is a clear demonstration that Congress still authorizes and supports deadly operations in the name of counterterrorism.

Will the House Ever Consider the Legislation?

In June 2021, the House of Representatives voted 268 to 161, with 49 Republicans joining the Democrats who controlled the chamber at the time, to repeal the Iraq AUMFs. This time around, the effort will not be so easy. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said in March that he supports repealing the Iraq AUMFs, but also indicated that he does not plan to rush a bill to the House floor, preferring instead to send it through the House Foreign Affairs Committee led by his ally, Michael McCaul (R-TX). The AUMF repeal has exposed interesting bipartisanship in both the House and the Senate, and mainstream McCarthy-aligned Republicans like McCaul are now facing what many in Washington consider a shocking alliance between the far-right, Trump-supporting House Freedom Caucus and famous Progressive Democrats like Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY).

While Freedom Caucus Republicans like Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) agree with their liberal counterparts that the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs should be repealed, McCarthy-allied Republicans like McCaul are echoing an all-too-familiar Republican motto dating to the debate around the Affordable Care Act: “repeal and replace.” Mainstream House Republicans do not want to fully repeal the Iraq AUMFs, as the Senate did, without replacing them with what they see as suitable alternatives. Because of this divide, the House version of the legislation, if it ever reaches committee or the floor itself, will likely be subject to disagreement, debate, and a long amendment process.

Rather than pivoting from the Middle East, Congress is authorizing the Biden administration and the US military to remain present in the region.

Even if the legislation does find its way to the House floor, the lower chamber is still plagued by the same qualms about exiting the Middle East that the Senate faces. As in the Senate, there is little to no indication that the House will repeal the 2001 AUMF anytime soon. This wariness is evident in new legislation from Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) that would repeal the 2001 AUMF but replace it with a narrower authorization that would allow the president to target IS “terrorist hot spots” in Iraq and Syria. The resolution has been referred to as a “landmark” bill, but continued congressional authorization for US counterterrorism operations in Syria and Iraq is far from a landmark change in US foreign policy; rather it simply allows future US presidents to continue to wreak havoc on the people of the Middle East without repercussions.

Along with the AUMFs, the House has twice demonstrated in recent months its unwillingness to leave the Middle East, in decisive votes against Representative Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) War Powers Resolutions on Syria and Somalia. War Powers Resolutions are privileged in the House, which means that they must be swiftly voted on after they are introduced. Because of this, they are one of the most effective ways for Congress to demonstrate its authority on military authorization, since they can require the president to remove US troops from conflict. For example, the Syria War Powers Resolution, had it been successful, would have been a demonstration of congressional power requiring President Biden to remove US troops from Syria within 15 days of its adoption. However, the House overwhelmingly voted 321 to 103 to reject Gaetz’s resolution, and did the same with his Somalia resolution weeks later. Before the Syria vote, House lawmakers from both parties came together to argue, using the 2001 counterterrorism AUMF as justification, that the Biden administration has the right, as well as good reason, to continue operating in Syria. Both the legislative process surrounding these War Powers Resolutions and the overwhelming bipartisan rejection of them were significant, confirming again that most of Congress approves the Biden administration’s deployment of the military in the Middle East.

The 2001 AUMF Prevents Meaningful Reform

The negative consequences that the 2001 AUMF holds for the people of the Middle East is clear. For example, US Central Command (CENTCOM) is currently investigating whether it accidentally killed Lotfi Hassan Misto, a 56-year-old father of 10 in Syria who was killed by an American Hellfire missile on May 3. Although the strike was meant to kill a senior al-Qaeda official, the US military now thinks that it mistakenly struck this Syrian civilian who was tending to his sheep.

The deaths of Misto and other civilians killed in US drone strikes and military operations in the name of counterterrorism demonstrate the danger the 2001 counterterrorism AUMF poses to Middle East populations. The Senate repeal of the Iraq AUMFs was a positive—though largely symbolic—step, but Congress is still authorizing deadly US counterterrorism operations throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than pivoting from the Middle East, Congress is authorizing the Biden administration and the US military to remain present in the region. The effects of this US presence, for Misto and other civilians who have been directly and indirectly affected by US counterterrorism operations, will continue to be devastating. The US government will never be able to correct the many wrongdoings that it has inflicted throughout the Middle East in the wake of 9/11, but Congress can still take the necessary step of repealing the 2001 AUMF to put a halt to its approval of these deadly operations.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Flickr/US DoD