In October 2011, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was eating dinner at an outdoor restaurant in Yemen when he was killed in an explosion. The 16-year-old American citizen, born in Denver, was reportedly collateral damage of a drone strike aimed at killing senior Al-Qaeda operative Ibrahim al-Banna. The attack came only two weeks after the Obama Administration assassinated al-Awlaki’s father, Anwar, also an American citizen, by the same means.
When questioned by Congress over the legality of killing American citizens without due process on the soil of countries with which the United States was not at war, President Obama’s Justice Department held firm. “Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security,” said Attorney General Eric Holder at the time, positing that the Constitution allowed the administration to substitute CIA analysts in a top-secret briefing room for a jury of one’s peers in an open court, should the administration deem the alleged crime to be related to national security.
Sometimes the world can dazzle us with its cruel ironies. The practice of executive-sanctioned killings on foreign soil continued in the next administration. During the first military action of the Trump administration, a commando raid in Yemen killed Anwar’s surviving 8-year-old daughter, Nawar (“Nora”), another American citizen, who reportedly died from a bullet in the neck in front of her mother and uncle.
What these disparate events have in common with one another, other than the sanguinity of the victims, and with thousands of other strikes across half a dozen countries, is their legal basis. The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was passed when the U.S. was still reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11. Its language authorizes the president to use the armed forces of the United States against those responsible for the attack.
The AUMF was first deployed to launch the invasion of Afghanistan but has since been used by successive administrations — less as a good-faith basis for prosecuting those responsible for 9/11, than as blank check for the exercise of military force without Congressional approval. The Biden administration is apparently set on continuing this tradition: last week it unilaterally ordered strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
In financial terms, the cost of this “forever war” has been staggering. As a junior Naval officer in Afghanistan, I saw a small slice of the immense waste and asset mismanagement in the thousands of unopened CONEX boxes of unused equipment and exorbitant fees paid to contractors. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates $6.4 trillion has been spent in its prosecution since 2001. This figure renders the recent pandemic stimulus bills downright meager in comparison.
Far greater than the fiscal cost, however, is the damage accrued to this nation’s soul. The Costs of War Project counts 335,000 civilians killed in these operations, an astonishing level of innocent carnage funded by taxpayer dollars. Unquantifiable is the amount of ill-will sown in over these 20 years, and how many future attacks might germinate from the seeds of resentment scattered by drone strikes across The Levant and Central Asia.
What the war has exposed at home is the immense cleavage between members of the military and the rest of the population. Less than one half of one percent of Americans serve in the military and that Lilliputian minority insulates everyone else from the most dire consequences of endless war.
The raid that killed Nawar al-Awlaki also resulted in the death of Senior Chief William Owens, a Navy SEAL and father of three. It is this country’s military and military families that bear the cross of the indifference of 330 million of their fellow citizens.
Sometimes the world can dazzle us with its cruel ironies.
The time is long past for Congress to finally repeal the AUMF and discard the absurd pretension that every threat to this country requires that the executive branch be unfettered in its ability respond.
Perhaps today conditions are finally ripe. Democrats are calling for the Biden administration to work with Congress to rein in presidential war powers. Like Tolkien’s ring, however, power obtained can be far too intoxicating to willfully discard. Presidents tend to think more about how they would rather not be hamstrung than how a more unscrupulous successor might abuse the authorities they so judiciously wield.
Congressional cowardice has also conspired to keep the AUMF on the books. A law that allows members to cede decision making on military actions to the executive also gives them the luxury of not having to take a potentially electorally dangerous position on a matter of grave importance. We should expect more from our elected officials. Repealing the AUMF would force them to assume accountability in an area in which the founders always contemplated a role for Congress.
I urge you to contact your senators and representative and ask them to support repeal of the AUMF. We owe it to future generations to restore the balance of power when it comes to matters of war and peace.