War is a heavy responsibility. But many of America’s foreign conflicts are now started, executed and largely overseen by one man: the president. Congress has ceded its war-making authority to the executive branch. War and peace are no longer an expression of the will of the people.
Syria is a clear example. U.S. military operations against Islamic State rely on an outdated congressional resolution. The September 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, also known as an AUMF, gave the president the power to fight al Qaeda and other entities that “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 9/11 attacks. The executive branch has interpreted its congressional mandate to wage war in the broadest way possible, treating ISIS as what it calls “associated forces,” even though al Qaeda disavowed ISIS in 2014. The 2001 AUMF is then used as legal authority for an indefinite global counterterrorism effort.
Congress should be ashamed. Abdicating its constitutional responsibility to define and confine foreign engagements is no small matter. The framers of the Constitution explicitly granted Congress responsibility for overseeing America’s war efforts. They intentionally veered away from the British model of war-making in favor of a more democratic approach. They gave the legislature responsibility for declaring wars and raising armies. The president, meanwhile, would serve only as commander-in-chief—a wartime tactician, not a kingly grand strategist.
This democratic model of war powers reflected that, as a fledgling nation, winning a major conflict would require the full support of the American people—their economy, manpower and willpower. As a layer of government, the House was—and remains—closer to the people and so more accountable. Voting to authorize a war would carry political consequences as well as providing a moral imperative for members of Congress to equip soldiers adequately for the fight.
The current arrangement doesn’t reflect the framers’ intentions. Congress must reclaim its responsibility to oversee American wars. When Congress sidelines itself and allows the president to direct major military efforts from start to finish, the American people lose. New AUMFs must include specific directives defining the scope of the military’s mission, setting measurable objectives and establishing definitions of success. Congressional appropriations for war should serve as continued oversight opportunities.
War is a decision with real costs. My son is a captain in the U.S. Army, and although I’ve been in Congress for four years, I’ve never had the chance to vote on where, when and how our military is deployed. We can do better.
The nation needs a new AUMF, and Congress must have a chance to debate America’s mission abroad, and the cost we’re willing to pay. I urge my colleagues in Congress to reclaim their constitutional war-making authority. I urge the executive branch to re-evaluate its expansive interpretation of the current AUMFs before further unleashing the might and fury of the American military machine.
Mr. Buck, a Republican, represents Colorado’s Fourth Congressional District.
Appeared in the September 25, 2018, print edition.