Donald Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria has been a debacle. It has fanned the flames of violence and will likely provide an opportunity for ISIS to resurge. It has further endangered U.S. service members in Syria. It has led to reported atrocities committed by Turkish-backed forces against Kurds. And the sudden withdrawal abandons America’s Kurdish allies, who have risked their lives for the United States. Announcing plans to abandon one’s allies—yet stay to protect or perhaps to unlawfully appropriate oil fields—is a sure way to shatter the trust of other allies worldwide.
Trump has taken to Twitter to defend his hasty withdrawal by repeatedly invoking the idea of ending endless wars. “The Endless Wars Must End!” he tweeted, for example. This sentiment, to be sure, echoes a goal that if pursued responsibly would be laudable. After all, in addition to Syria, the United States is using military force in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen in a series of conflicts that have lasted nearly two decades. The so-called “War on Terror” has claimed thousands of U.S. military lives and hundreds of thousands of civilian lives with little evidence that this approach is reducing rather than fueling terrorism.
But Trump’s rhetoric is empty—it lacks a thoughtful strategy for ending America’s current wars. Sadly, the reality is that this administration has presented no such plan and has failed to take the most meaningful and durable steps toward ending perpetual wars. If Trump were serious about his professed desire to end endless wars, he would offer a responsible plan for repealing the statutory authorization that three successive administrations have relied on to justify a war-based approach to counterterrorism abroad in favor of a more sustainable and effective approach.
Repealing the 2001 AUMF
The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been the legal cornerstone of America’s never-ending “War on Terror.” Congress proclaimed in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 attacks:
[T]he President is authorized 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, 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.
The 2001 AUMF’s language and historical context point squarely to al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and reflect Congress’s narrow intent to authorize force only for the limited purpose of stopping those responsible for 9/11 from attacking the United States again. Yet the statute has been the subject of ever-widening executive interpretations enabling it to target so-called “associated forces” of al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban and then the associated forces, affiliates, and even successor entities of these new groups in an ever-growing daisy-chain of enemies without the authorization from Congress required by our Constitution. Equally problematic have been the lack of an expiration date requiring the executive branch to obtain a new authorization from Congress and the lack of geographic specificity making it clear where Congress was authorizing the use of military force under war-based rules, leaving only the executive branch’s interpretation of international law to constrain the geographic spread of war.
Without such basic safeguards in place, this one 18-year-old authorization is being used to justify ongoing wars that started before some of the service members who fight in them were even born, wars that have been fought against an ever-growing array of enemy groups in as many as 19 countries. In answers provided by General Mark Milley during his confirmation process for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he listed six armed groups across six countries for which the United States is currently relying on the 2001 AUMF to authorize military action. The full list, according to General Milley, is classified. And the Trump administration has even flirted with the far-fetched idea of invoking the 2001 AUMF to engage in military action against Iran.
As long as the 2001 authorization remains on the books, no one should be surprised if presidents continue using it to fight never-ending, ill-defined wars without the deliberation and accountable vote by our representatives in Congress required by the Constitution and designed to limit American engagement in unwise wars.
Therefore, the boldest step President Trump can take toward actually ending America’s unending wars would be to seek congressional repeal of the 2001 AUMF and, if warranted, a replacement that is clear, specific, carefully tailored to current threats, and aligned with U.S. international law obligations. A repeal of the existing AUMF need not be immediately effective. Indeed, it could be designed to provide the administration time to plan and undertake efforts to prevent precisely the kind of sudden catastrophe unfolding in Syria right now. And to the extent that it is necessary, consistent with international law, and appropriate to continue military operations against certain groups in particular locations, a replacement AUMF with concrete limitations could be enacted, either simultaneously or during the period before the repeal’s effective date.
Unlike the 2001 statute, any replacement should include, among other safeguards against perpetual and unauthorized wars, a list of locations where force is authorized, a designation of specific enemy groups against which force may be used, clear objectives that will prevent mission creep, and a sunset clause—that is, an expiration date at which point military force must cease without affirmative congressional reauthorization. As former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen has explained, far from announcing an end date for the conflict to our enemies,
a sunset does not end the war—unless Congress and the American people decide it is time to do so. A sunset imposes a time limit for revisiting the authorities to assess whether any adjustments are necessary . . . Such good government practices reflect our nation’s strength and should not be viewed as a sign to our enemies that we plan to give up the fight.
Congress has demonstrated increasing interest in this path. For instance, the U.S. House voted earlier this year to repeal the 2001 AUMF. In addition, the U.S. House’s version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes a sense of Congress stating that “the use of the 2001 AUMF has been well beyond the scope that Congress initially intended”; that the 2001 AUMF “has served as a blank check for any President to wage war at any time and at any place”; and that any new statute should include a sunset clause, reporting requirements to improve transparency, and “a clear and specific expression of mission objectives, targets, and geographic scope[.]”
The Trump administration has failed to match the president’s rhetoric about ending endless wars with support for such legislative action, preferring instead to effectively avoid any meaningful steps toward walking back the existing authorization. To live up to his rhetoric about ending endless wars, Trump must reverse the administration’s course on the 2001 AUMF and use his sway, especially with Senate Republicans, to encourage congressional action. Doing so would represent a lasting step toward ending everlasting wars.
The Need for a Comprehensive Strategy
But in addition to reining in the legal basis for endless war, Trump must also seek a way to altogether obviate the need for perpetual military force. A military-first approach without a comprehensive strategy is neither sustainable nor, as America has learned over the past two decades, an effective solution for mitigating the threat of terrorism. Trump could prioritize diplomacy, development, and the promotion of good governance. He could augment these non-military approaches by leveraging intelligence resources, homeland security mechanisms, economic tools, influence operations, and law enforcement means. He could also support foreign partners in their efforts to curb terrorism while demanding respect for human rights.
And yet here, too, Trump falls short, often taking the opposite tack. The administration has maintained a global wartime posture. Further, the administration has demonstrated no discernible enthusiasm for marshaling the country’s array of non-military means in a consequential way. In fact, the administration has proposed significant budget cuts to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development each year in office.
Appeals to end endless wars are praiseworthy, but they must be supported by real policy changes that meaningfully advance the country toward ending these protracted conflicts. Based on his administration’s track record, Trump’s use of this language amounts to mere bombast and an unconvincing attempt to justify his irresponsible exit from Syria. If Trump wants to show he is serious about ending perpetual wars, he should start by tackling the 2001 AUMF and by recalibrating American counterterrorism strategy to depart from the war paradigm that America has embraced for nearly two decades. Whether he will meet this challenge or continue offering only empty bluster remains to be seen, but we aren’t holding our breath.
IMAGE: US President Donald Trump speaks about Syria in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, October 23, 2019 as US Vice President Mike Pence(L) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo look on. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)