Necessary but Not Sufficient

Repealing the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force is a prerequisite for a more restrained US foreign policy. But it barely scratches the surface.

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Last week, President Joe Biden announced that US troops will leave Afghanistan on September 11, 2021, almost twenty years after the United States invaded the country in October 2001. The invasion was, famously, the first undertaken after Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) three days after 9/11. The 2001 AUMF unequivocally declared 

that the 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.

It was clear at the time that the AUMF essentially authorized the US government to invade Afghanistan to retaliate against al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban, which had harbored al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden since the mid-1990s. As the jurists Jennifer Daskal and Stephen I. Vladeck put it, the 2001 AUMF was “only authorizing military force against those who could be tied to the groups directly responsible for the September 11 attacks.”

Although written to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, successive presidential administrations have deployed the AUMF for purposes that expanded well beyond its original intent. All told, as the Friends Committee on National Legislation has noted, decision-makers “have used [the AUMF] to justify 41 operations in 19 countries by claiming that the 2001 AUMF applies to ‘associated forces’ of al Qaeda and the Taliban–a term that appears nowhere in the law. Today the 2001 AUMF is the legal basis used to justify all current wars.” 

As this suggests, the 2001 AUMF in effect has become yet another tool to enable the United States to prosecute a series of endless wars in the Global South.

That the AUMF must be repealed goes without saying; no American government should have ever been granted the ability to deploy force without first receiving the approval of the demos—either its representatives in Congress or “the people” themselves. It’s therefore heartening that repealing the AUMF and associated authorizations has become a major focus of the Democratic Party’s left-flank.

Nonetheless, we on the left must be careful not to focus too much of our energies or critical attention on the AUMF, or indeed any resolution related to the use of armed force, because post-World War II US history demonstrates that law has little relationship to the deployment of military power. 

Most dramatically, the United States has not declared war since June 1942, when Congress voted 73-0 to initiate war against Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. In fact, the US Congress has only declared war eleven times: in addition to the aforementioned examples, the nation has declared war against the United Kingdom (1812); Mexico (1846); Spain (1898); Germany and Austria-Hungary (1917); and Germany, Italy, and Japan (1941). But, of course, the United States has fought many more wars than these declarations imply. According to Tufts University’s Military Intervention Project, since the nation’s founding in 1776, the United States has undertaken over 500 military interventions, with about half of these occurring between 1950 and 2017—a period in which the US Congress formally declared war zero times.

The history of the Cold War further indicates that law and the operation of US power have little connection to one another. Take, for example, a speech delivered by President Harry Truman in March 1947, in which the president affirmed that the US government would do everything it could “to help free peoples [anywhere in the world] to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements [i.e., the communist movement/Soviet Union] that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes.” This notion—that the United States would fight a global Cold War—became known as the “Truman Doctrine” and defined US foreign policy for decades. Put another way, there was very little legal basis to prosecute a never-ending war with the Soviet Union, but the United States did so anyway.

What does this all suggest? At the most basic level, the recent history of the United States implies that law (and the lack of law) is epiphenomenal—i.e., a function of deeper structures, processes, and trends—and that focusing on the AUMF means focusing on a symptom of empire rather than its causes. This does not mean that the AUMF shouldn’t be repealed, and there are indeed several groups doing the important work to ensure this happens. Nevertheless, it does mean that adopting a legalistic approach to the problems of US empire will not get us the results we want.

Instead, the left must focus on where power lies, and in the case of the United States, it’s fairly clear that the power to make war and foreign policy lies in the executive branch and, even more specifically, in the White House itself. The accretion of institutional power that has occurred in the last seventy-five years indicates that it’ll be very difficult for the left to have any revolutionary effect on US foreign policy unless we win the presidency and staff the White House. This suggests two things: first, that the left must accept that an electoral approach is necessary to an anti-imperialist politics, and second, that the left needs to develop a cohort of experts able to manipulate the levers of imperial power. If we fail to do so, critics of empire will remain where we’ve remained for decades: on the outside, looking in.