Ending the Forever Wars

It's easy if you try.

President Joe Biden signs two executive orders on healthcare Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House.
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

President Biden is rightly working with Congress to rein in overseas military ventures. But, as Commander-in-Chief, he is under no obligation to wait.

POLITICO (“Biden backs new war powers vote in Congress, White House says“):

President Joe Biden intends to work with Congress to repeal the war authorizations that have underpinned U.S. military operations across the globe for the past two decades and negotiate a new one that reins in the open-ended nature of America’s foreign wars, the White House said Friday.

In a statement to POLITICO, press secretary Jen Psaki said the president wants to “ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.”

The olive branch to Capitol Hill marks the first time as president that Biden has publicly endorsed jettisoning resolutions passed by Congress a generation ago that have been used to justify military operations in places few envisioned at the time. The AUMFs include one passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and another passed in the fall of 2002 ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It comes just two days after a bipartisan group of senators, led by Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), introduced a bill to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force and one passed in 1991 ahead of the first Iraq War.

Senators proposed the measure amid bipartisan anger over Biden’s decision to launch retaliatory airstrikes against Iran-backed militia groups in Syria last week without first seeking congressional approval. The operation frustrated many of Biden’s allies on the Hill and renewed longstanding concerns among Democrats and Republicans alike that Congress has abdicated its constitutional role in declaring war and authorizing military operations.

“Tim Kaine has been a leader on questions of war powers throughout his time in the Senate,” Psaki said in her statement, “and has helped build a strong bipartisan coalition that understands the importance of Congress’s constitutional prerogatives.”

A spokesperson for Kaine said the senator “is already in bipartisan discussion with his colleagues and the administration.”

“Sen. Kaine believes that President Biden, who has a deep understanding of both congressional and executive responsibilities, is in a unique position to help America restore balance in how we make decisions about war and peace,” the spokesperson said.

An ideologically diverse group of senators has signed onto the Kaine-Young effort — a reflection of the fact that reining in presidential war powers has long been a bipartisan priority.

Their effort comes amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran; the U.S. believes an Iran-backed group was responsible for rocket attacks Wednesday that targeted an Iraqi base housing American troops.

Still, in the days following Biden’s Syria strikes, lawmakers have questioned the White House’s rationale and legal justification for the attacks. Biden said he ordered the strikes in “self defense” after Iran-backed militia groups targeted U.S. forces in the region in recent rocket attacks.

That explanation hasn’t satisfied top Democrats, who have used the strikes to revive their years-long push to scale back presidential war powers.

Kaine in particular has warned of the potential for a tit-for-tat military conflict between the U.S. and Iran that could explode into a full-blown war. And Democrats more broadly have criticized the Biden administration for its lack of engagement with Congress in the days since the strikes.

Rolling back the AUMFs, which I fully support, would do nothing to stop Biden or any future President from launching one-off retaliatory strikes. While patently illegal under both US and international law, every President in the modern era has claimed the right to do so under their broad Article II powers as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Unless Congress is prepared to impeach Presidents for transgressions—and they’re clearly not—that’s not going to change.

To the extent Biden is committed to ending the “forever wars” in the greater Middle East, he can simply . . . end the “forever wars” in the greater Middle East. While consultation with Congress is my preferred practice in almost every instance, to the extent we’re using force abroad because Presidents have stretched the AUMFs beyond recognition, Biden can simply stop doing that. He’s surrounded by capable national security professionals who can advise him how to do so prudently rather than recklessly.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, The Presidency, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    …he can simply . . . end the “forever wars” …

    He can and that brings to mind the Lyndon Johnson dilemma. Johnson knew that the Viet Nam war was a fools mission, yet he felt that he couldn’t withdraw without being politically punished. Nixon knew that as well, when he took office and then pursued a fig leaf peace accords. Six years of noodlin’ around before US Embassy personnel climbed the rope ladders into the helicopters.

    Biden withdraws and the R’s will use it against him and many Dems will wail about the Afghan women who will be slaughtered by the Taliban. Wars and colonization are easier to begin than finish.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Getting political consensus is indeed one of the main reasons I would prefer Presidents actually work with Congres on policymaking. But, if anyone can take the risk of doing the popular thing quickly, it’s a 78-year-old unlikely to run for a second term when he’s 82.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    …if anyone can take the risk…

    I agree with that.

    …Presidents actually work with Congres on policymaking.

    Arguably, the AUMFs were the output of working with Congress on policy making and here we are nearly 20 years later trying to figure out how to withdraw from those wars.

    Afghanistan is the one adventure where we can make a more or less clean break, perhaps Biden should address the nation, lay out the reasons for and against staying and outline what is most likely to happen if we withdraw and not sugarcoat anything. Then ask Congress, in an effort of consultation with his partners in governing, to have an up and down vote as to whether the US should stay or withdraw.

    The congress critters will sh&t a brick of course, shift blame and do nothing, but they will be exposed and Biden can do what he believes is the proper course of action.

    None of this will happen and some decision, even a non decision will occur.

  4. Kathy says:

    To the extent Biden is committed to ending the “forever wars” in the greater Middle East, he can simply . . . end the “forever wars” in the greater Middle East.

    Like Obama drew down force levels in Iraq and was blamed for ISIS?

    Beyond that, if the AUMF issues aren’t addressed, then, regardless of what Biden does, future presidents can continue or start other long, drawn-out wars.

    It’s worth noting no one ever thinks they are starting such wars. Everyone expects a short war, which will be massively successful with minimal casualties, and we’ll all be home in time for Christmas.

    I hear there’s a military maxim which holds that no plan of action ever survives contact with the enemy. This should be taken into account every time.

  5. Scott F. says:

    “Sen. Kaine believes that President Biden, who has a deep understanding of both congressional and executive responsibilities, is in a unique position to help America restore balance in how we make decisions about war and peace,” the spokesperson said.

    Helping “America restore balance in how we make decisions about war and peace” is the more important project vs. withdrawing the approximately 5,000 troops still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Using the roll back of the AUMF as the rationale for a full withdrawal would rightly signal a shift in that balance.

    Biden should continue to let Kaine & Young take the lead here to demonstrate where the power to declare war is supposed to lie.

  6. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Sure, okay, fine; let’s say Biden does that. Cue the QGOP attacking Dems in 2022 as “Attacking Our Brave Troops!!!!!” “Spitting On The Graves Of Our Fallen Soldiers!!!!!!” and “Cowards!!!!!!” in 5…4…3…2…1….

    Seriously, Biden could do more better if he started telling our high-maintenance “allies” Saudi Arabia and Israel to pound sand more often. (No pun intended.)

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh, so you want to give up, huh? Even as we are right on the very brink of seeing true multi-party, multi-confessional democracy bloom in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya?

    So close. So very close. If we just blew up a few more buildings.

  8. Bill says:

    Funny, our former president had the same idea…. ,and exercised it quite well too- why endanger troops when a surgical missile strike will do? Sure, we need hardware to keep the big boys in check but the cockroaches aren’t worth a single American life.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    You know who likes to call enemies by derogatory names like, ‘cockroach?’ Guys who have never been to war or lack even the most basic imagination, not to mention empathy. Actual warriors tend to have a rather more respectful attitude toward opponents than do armchair loudmouths. But hey, if it makes you feel all manly, then you do you.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Bill: but the cockroaches aren’t worth a single American life.

    I’ll give you this, you aren’t hiding your true racist pos scumbag colors.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    Forever wars in Afghanistan? Does anybody remember Korea? When are we going to figure out how to feel secure when the rest of the world is on autopilot?

    I vote for never. The question about ‘forever wars’ is reducing the number of them to the minimum. I’m pretty sure everyone advocating quick withdrawal from Kabul is crossing their fingers that no AlQaida or ISIS organization takes their opportunity and grows like kudzu.

  12. Bill says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Still sore about solomonie being shown karma? I’m over it, he was trash just like the rest of them….and they killed many Americans so I guess you approve of that or something lame?
    OzarkHillbilly says:
    Friday, March 5, 2021 at 15:24
    @Bill: but the cockroaches aren’t worth a single American life.

    I’ll give you this, you aren’t hiding your true racist pos scumbag colors

    They’re “Caucasians” right? So am I, so spare me the racism bs…bitch!

  13. Thomm says:

    @Bill: still thinking that a black woman blowing you doesn’t make you a racist?

  14. Thomm says:

    @Bill: Damn…no edit. I meant to say: do you still think getting blown by a black woman keeps you from being racist?

  15. Ken_L says:

    Biden will be urged to take whatever military action he has the purported authority to take, by politicians from either party, when it suits their interests to do so. I fully understand why he wants a clearly limiting mandate from Congress to cite as his reason for winding down military commitments in the Middle East, instead of acting on his own authority and being blamed by Republicans for every new outbreak of conflict that occurs afterwards.

    The situation in Afghanistan in particular is appalling, thanks to Trump and Pompeo pretending to negotiate a ‘peace deal’ while announcing their intention to withdraw all US troops no matter what happens. Troops are meant to leave within a couple of months and the Taliban is basically running out the clock so they can start a full-scale civil war the moment it’s safe to do so. I’m sure Trump, Pompeo, Graham and the rest are salivating at the prospect of savaging ‘Sleepy Joe’ for ‘losing Afghanistan’ and it’s vital Biden do everything he can to force Republicans to declare what action they think he should take in advance of the May deadline.