This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon. It is based on remarks delivered by Professor Koh at the Future of War Conference in Washington, D.C. on February 24, 2015, co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and Arizona State University.
Whatever our differences regarding the future of war, we should all be able to agree on what war must be and what it must not be. Going forward, war must be lawful, but, it must not be perpetual. At some point, it must end.
That brings me to the current debate over the ISIL-AUMF (Authorization of Military Force against the Islamic State), where the Administration is trying to strike a balance between these two goals: (1) Sufficient legal authority: having enough legal authority to effectively fight a potentially long-term battle against the Islamic State, while still taking steps toward (2) Ending the Forever War: not perpetuating America’s Longest War by endlessly expanding the 2001 AUMF, which the President has repeatedly vowed to refine and ultimately repeal. As the President explained in his 2013 speech at the National Defense University, of course, “ [o]ur systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. …” And so the challenge he posed there was just right: “to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.”
Right now, we are in a rare moment in this town where Congress is seriously considering that question. That is no small feat because it takes so many politicians to tango and because there are very few historical moments (apart from immediately after disasters like Pearl Harbor or 9/11) when a critical mass of elected officials seems ready to put itself on the line by voting to authorize war.
But in this town, at this moment, Congress seems overly fixated on the first goal—sufficient legal authority—while giving short shrift to the second —ending forever war. But on reflection, the second goal is far more important. Why? Because our armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces, which began just after 9/11, is nearly 14 years old: by a wide margin the longest war in American history, 8 years longer than the Revolutionary War, and 10 years longer than either the Civil War or World War II. As the President noted at NDU: “the choices we make about war can impact — in sometimes unintended ways — the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends,” particularly when that war seems to stretch on endlessly.
So our challenge is clear: the President and Congress must enact sufficient authority to win a war that must end. Getting the balance wrong would be disastrous. This legislative moment could become the 21st century’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. For if Congress were to overbroadly authorize a fight against ISIL that mutates endlessly to include new enemies, or that does not continue the process of reexamining the continuing need for the 2001 AUMF, we will have tipped the balance toward perpetual war. Continue Reading »