Skip Navigation

Ending the Post-9/11 Forever Wars

Congress wrongly gave the president carte blanche to use military force, and we’re still paying the price.

  • Representative Barbara Lee Rep. Barbara Lee
September 9, 2021
Stocktrek Images
View the entire 9/11 at 20 series

On Septem­ber 11, 2001, the world witnessed a terrible attack against our nation that took thou­sands of lives and changed millions more lives forever. The events of that day funda­ment­ally changed the way we view Amer­ican national secur­ity. But the decision to plunge Amer­ica into a state of perpetual war was taken rashly, without the debate that such a moment­ous decision deman­ded.

Twenty years on, Amer­ica and the world are much worse off for this fail­ure of lead­er­ship. It is time to turn the page on two decades of endless war with a vague and ever-shift­ing mission. While this begins with remov­ing the 2001 and 2002 Author­iz­a­tions for Use of Milit­ary Force from the law books, it will also require decis­ive changes in our foreign policy decision processes and resource alloc­a­tion.

Shortly after the attacks, Pres­id­ent Bush sent a 60-word blank check to Congress that would give him or any other pres­id­ent the author­ity to wage war against enemies of their choos­ing. It was a sweep­ing resol­u­tion known as the 2001 Author­iz­a­tion for Use of Milit­ary Force, or the 2001 AUMF. I was the lone vote in Congress against the author­iz­a­tion because I feared it was too broad, giving the pres­id­ent the open-ended power to use milit­ary force anywhere, against anyone.

The human cost has been high: an untold number of civil­ian casu­al­ties over­seas, two gener­a­tions of Amer­ican soldiers sent to fight without any clear object­ive or over­sight, and thou­sands of our troops and other person­nel killed, wounded, and trau­mat­ized in action.

The Afgh­anistan War alone has cost more than $2.6 tril­lion taxpayer dollars and killed more than 238,000 indi­vidu­als. The 2002 AUMF, which author­ized war against Iraq based on fabric­ated claims of weapons of mass destruc­tion, has cost $1.9 tril­lion and killed an estim­ated 288,000. Together, these two AUMFs have been used by three success­ive pres­id­ents to engage in war in at least seven coun­tries — from Yemen to Libya to Niger — against a continu­ously grow­ing list of adversar­ies that Congress never foresaw or inten­ded. The Bush, Obama, and Trump admin­is­tra­tions have further iden­ti­fied to Congress combat-ready coun­terter­ror­ism deploy­ments to at least 14 addi­tional coun­tries, indic­at­ing that the AUMFs could justify armed combat in those places as well. Only 56 current members of the House and 16 senat­ors were present at the 2001 vote, making a mock­ery of the consti­tu­tional prin­ciple that only the people’s elec­ted repres­ent­at­ives in Congress can send our coun­try to war.

The results today are a perpetual state of war and an ever-expand­ing milit­ary-indus­trial complex that consumes a greater and greater amount of our resources every year. Pentagon spend­ing since 9/11 (adjus­ted for infla­tion) has increased by almost 50 percent. Each hour, taxpay­ers are paying $32 million for the total cost of wars since 2001, and these wars have not made Amer­ic­ans safer or brought demo­cracy or stabil­ity to the Middle East. To the contrary, they have further destabil­ized the region and show no sign of ending or achiev­ing any of the long-ago stated goals.

Addi­tion­ally, many of these actions were essen­tially hidden from the Amer­ican people by using funds from an account meant for unanti­cip­ated devel­op­ments called Over­seas Contin­gency Oper­a­tions. Congress appro­pri­ated nearly $1.9 tril­lion for this account, enabling continu­ing milit­ary actions and wars in several coun­tries, exemp­ted from congres­sional budget rules. Thank­fully, Pres­id­ent Biden ended this budget prac­tice this year. But two decades of reli­ance on emer­gency and contin­gency fund­ing sources has resul­ted in less over­sight, less trans­par­ency, and higher levels of waste.

It’s time we end these forever wars. With a coali­tion of part­ners, allies, and advoc­ates both inside the halls of Congress and out, we are finally on the cusp of turn­ing the page on this state of perpetual war-making.

To begin with, I worked with colleagues on a bipar­tisan basis to urge Pres­id­ent Biden to with­draw troops from Afgh­anistan swiftly and effi­ciently. He heeded our calls and under­took an evac­u­ation oper­a­tion unpre­ced­en­ted in its scale, while keep­ing our commit­ment to with­draw milit­ary occu­pa­tion before Septem­ber 11th.  The ill-defined AUMF allowed the Afgh­anistan War to drag on for two decades, even after we had achieved the ostens­ible mission of elim­in­at­ing the threat posed by al Qaeda to the United States. The chal­lenges of our evac­u­ation, and the fact that the Taliban could regain control of Afgh­anistan despite our twenty-year war, merely under­score why Congress should not author­ize open-ended milit­ary engage­ments.

For that very reason, it’s not enough to just with­draw our forces. We must rein in exec­ut­ive power and keep it from being abused by any more admin­is­tra­tions — Demo­cratic or Repub­lican. In my role on the Demo­cratic Plat­form Draft­ing Commit­tee, I success­fully advoc­ated for includ­ing a repeal of the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs in the Demo­cratic Party Plat­form. In a historic 268–161 vote, the House passed my legis­la­tion to repeal the 2002 AUMF in June, and the Senate Foreign Rela­tions Commit­tee voted 14–8 in August to do the same, with both votes draw­ing bipar­tisan support. I am also call­ing on Congress to address the outdated 2001 AUMF. Any new author­iz­a­tion for use of milit­ary force must include safe­guards to protect against over­reach — includ­ing a clear and specific­ally defined mission object­ive, report­ing require­ments to increase trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity, and a sunset clause or timeline within which Congress should revisit the author­ity — among other provi­sions.

Congress must reclaim its consti­tu­tional duty to over­see matters of war and peace. In addi­tion to repeal­ing these AUMFs, we also need to revisit the broader stat­utes that govern war powers so that Congress can more effect­ively rein in pres­id­en­tial war-making — a project being pursued in earn­est by my colleagues, Reps. Jim McGov­ern (D-MA) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY). But we need to go beyond just chan­ging the law. We need to change our approach to the world, away from fram­ing every chal­lenge as one that requires milit­ary force as a response. When we use the frame of war to analyze the chal­lenge of terror­ism, we arti­fi­cially limit the solu­tions avail­able to us, crowding out the polit­ical and diplo­matic approaches that offer the only real durable solu­tions for U.S. secur­ity.

Help­ing to build an equit­able world that values inclu­sion and human rights won’t make terror­ism disap­pear. But it would dramat­ic­ally shrink the space for terror­ist groups to oper­ate and weaken the real griev­ances that they exploit. Not only that, but a U.S. foreign policy based on support­ing devel­op­ment and human rights would allow us to pursue a proact­ive strategy in line with progress­ive values, rather than one where Amer­ica finds itself constantly in a milit­ar­ized defens­ive crouch.

A new foreign policy approach requires a signi­fic­ant real­loc­a­tion of our resources to address the very real and imme­di­ate threats we face. The world is still confront­ing a global pandemic. Hundreds of millions of people are living in extreme poverty, with many more pushed out of the middle class by Covid-19. And climate change looms over us, threat­en­ing every gain in human progress we have made over recent decades. It is unac­cept­able to continue to pour billions of dollars into the Pentagon when the real chal­lenges we face require diplo­matic and devel­op­ment solu­tions.

A new and better approach also requires empower­ing our civil­ian foreign policy agen­cies to set the agenda. For too many years, we have outsourced our foreign policy to the Pentagon. The over­whelm­ing human and finan­cial resources that the Pentagon brings to foreign policy decision-making too often push diplo­matic or devel­op­ment concerns to the back­ground. Rebal­an­cing the emphasis of our foreign policy will give us the oppor­tun­ity to explore solu­tions that could be both more humane and more durable.

The pres­id­ent has a role in fixing the errors of the last 20 years. But ulti­mately Congress must step up. For two decades, Congress has failed to exer­cise its consti­tu­tion­ally mandated role to conduct proper over­sight, to make appro­pri­ate decisions about budgets and resource alloc­a­tion, and — most import­antly — to play the singu­lar role the Consti­tu­tion assigns to us of making decisions about war and peace. The Amer­ican people have made clear their pref­er­ence for moving beyond endless war. Congress needs to hear their voice and act.

Lee is a member of the House Appro­pri­ations Commit­tee, chair of the Subcom­mit­tee on State and Foreign Oper­a­tions, and co-chair of the House Steer­ing & Policy Commit­tee. As a member of the House Demo­cratic Lead­er­ship, she is the highestrank­ing Black woman in Congress.