The law that forms the foundation of the war on terror is almost obsolete, undermining the legal basis of U.S. counterterrorism operations. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will take a long-overdue first step to fix this problem, a development we should all applaud.
On September 14, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), authorizing “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” behind the 9/11 attacks. Over a decade later, al-Qaida, the group that perpetrated the attacks, is on the ropes. But other armed groups — like the Haqqani Network, al-Shabab, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — have become targets of the Obama administration’s worldwide counterterrorism efforts. The statute’s explicit reference to the 9/11 attacks, however, means it can’t authorize military action against groups with only superficial links to al-Qaida.
In the wake of 9/11, the AUMF provided legal authority and demonstrated congressional support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. But the Bush administration soon abandoned the AUMF, justifying the war on terror on the basis of the president’s inherent constitutional powers as commander-in-chief. These interpretations were soon discredited, both in the court of public opinion and in actual courts, with the Supreme Court repeatedly chastising the Bush administration’s legal approach to counterterrorism.
In a laudable attempt to bring U.S. counterterrorism policy back within the rule of law, the Obama administration has invoked the AUMF as the basis for its global “targeted killing” operations, known by most simply as “drone strikes.” But, like its predecessor, this administration has also stretched the law to serve its purposes, and is currently contemplating even more implausible interpretations of the AUMF. The president and his legal team are pushing us closer to a place where every terrorist is a member of al-Qaida.
How we justify counterterrorism operations is not just a question for the lawyers — it’s a policy choice with far-reaching domestic and international implications. Military might and covert operations alone can’t win the global struggle against al-Qaida and its ideological comrades-in-arms. We need credible arguments too, both to secure support from potential partners and undermine extremist justifications. As former Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson argued, “we must guard against aggressive interpretations of our authorities that will discredit our efforts, provoke controversy and invite challenge.” The administration has already read nearly all meaning out of the legal concepts of “imminence” and “hostilities” — another far-fetched legal interpretation might be the last straw for the administration’s legitimacy in the arena of counterterrorism.
Alternatives to the AUMF exist, but they’re not good. Relying on inherent presidential power runs into considerable legal and political difficulties. Legally, this approach would risk intervention by a Supreme Court with a willingness to strike down excessive claims of executive power. Politically, it would be difficult to sustain for a president who ran for office largely on the promise of repudiating Bush-era legal excesses.
A rationale based on the international law of self-defense is similarly unappealing. Although the Obama administration maintains that the AUMF “does not authorize military force against anyone the Executive labels a ‘terrorist,’” using this legal argument would lead to precisely that result, usurping Congress’s constitutionally provided role in national security policy.
Since the United States plays an important role in setting norms of international conduct, our government should not claim legal rights that it is not prepared to see proliferate around the globe. UN officials recognize that the Obama administration’s “expansive and open-ended interpretation of the right to self-defense threatens to destroy the prohibition on the use of armed force.” CIA director John Brennan noted in 2012 that U.S. drone strikes “are establishing precedents that other nations may follow” — a concern that is already materializing.
With international armed groups unlikely to disappear any time soon, one option rises above the rest: it’s time for a new AUMF. President Obama is understandably reluctant to legally entrench President Bush’s war on terror, but a properly drafted law could provide legitimacy to existing operations and constrain future presidents. Indeed, our concern shouldn’t be a new counterterrorism statute, but what happens in its absence.
A new AUMF should not provide a blanket authorization to kill anyone the president considers an enemy. Instead, it should create a framework for continued counterterrorism operations that addresses which groups are valid targets, the circumstances under which they can be targeted, and where such operations can occur. Unlike the current AUMF, a new law should include an expiration date, but not be legally tied to any specific event.
Passing new legislation is never easy, and certainly won’t be in this Congress. But a concerted effort on the part of the administration could yield real results: a law that keeps America safe and restrains its leaders. For a president in search of a legacy, legislation to manage — and limit — the war on terror would be a good place to start.