Fifteen years ago this Wednesday Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Terrorists. Just three days after the attacks on 9/11, it passed unanimously in the Senate and only one member of the House – Rep. Barbara Lee – voted against it. If you have some time, I suggest that you listen to her accounting of that decision on RadioLab’s broadcast called “60 Words” (the number of words contained in the AUMF).
The reason those 60 words are so important is because they changed the way this country deals with terrorism – and it is still in effect 15 years later. If you remember, prior to that time, terrorists like Ramzi Yousef (WTC bombing) were apprehended and tried in our court system. The 2001 AUMF launched the Bush/Cheney “global war on terror” which not only led to the war in Afghanistan, but was used to justify things like torture and the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Of all the legacies of President Obama, his handling of that war is likely to receive the most mixed reviews. But his critics on the left have consistently missed the mark by arguing against his approach from the perspective of civil liberties. That ignores the sea-change that happened when this became a war. From that perspective, it would be helpful to review what has happened and where we stand today.
It is interesting to note from the get-go that President Obama attempted to re-name the “global war on terror.” Take a look at how Dick Cheney reacted to some of the differences he was noticing.
Cheney was concerned that the President was talking the country back to dealing with terrorism as a law enforcement problem. A couple of months later in May 2009, he and Obama gave dueling speeches about their different approaches to combating terrorism. In his speech, President Obama talked about ending the use of torture and his plan to close Gitmo. But he also said this:
Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.
In other words, the war would continue – but within the bounds of “our legal traditions and time-tested institutions.” As such, it was the 2001 IUMF that AG Eric Holder relied on to defend the administration’s use of drones.
In response to the attacks perpetrated – and the continuing threat posed – by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, Congress has authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those groups. Because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law. The Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack. And international law recognizes the inherent right of national self-defense. None of this is changed by the fact that we are not in a conventional war.
Then in May 2013, Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Here is how he introduced the conversation we need to be having:
Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions — about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them…
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom.
The President went on to discuss repealing the 2001 AUMF.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
The headlines after that speech were astounding:
Unfortunately that speech was soon forgotten as the threat of ISIS emerged and the war on terror was given new life. That is the state of the situation that President Obama will pass on to his successor.
If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she will face the same kind of excoriation that Republicans have launched at Obama for any terrorist attack either here at home or in places like Paris. Rather than rallying around our Commander-in-Chief (as the entire country did after 9/11), it is clear that Republicans will use an attack to inflame anger and fear against her. Because of that, Clinton’s administration will need to be just as vigilant or be blamed for the consequences. So it is hard to imagine any president making another move to end the war on terror. But in the wrong hands, it is a recipe for disaster.
As President Obama outlined in 2013, that poses some difficult questions – ones that need to be answered based on hard-earned wisdom rather than fear. The threat of terrorism is real (although not nearly as large as too many Americans assume). But being perpetually at war poses a threat as well. On the anniversary of 9/11, that is what we should be talking about.