Senators voted 61-36 on Wednesday to reject an amendment introduced by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to repeal the congressional authorizations that sent United States forces into action against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Paul's amendment would have meant that congressional authority for the war on terror would expire in 6 months.
Paul's amendment wasn't all bad, but ultimately, its defeat is a good thing.
For a start, I disagree with Paul's limited view of the president's inherent legal authority to use force. As I noted in June, "I'm convinced the president has significant latitude to conduct short term or short notice military operations absent congressional authority." While Supreme Court precedent suggests that presidential authority is secure here, it is of paramount importance that the commander-in-chief be able to command effectively and efficiently.
I also disagree with Paul's limited assessment of the existing authorization of military force against al Qaeda. Speaking on MSNBC Tuesday evening, Paul argued that, "It's intellectually dishonest to say that when we voted to go to war on [Sept. 11] that that has anything to do with the war in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan."
On the contrary, the Sept. 11 force authorization clearly states that the president "is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations..." responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. Seeing as al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks, I believe the president has authority to attack it wherever they wish. To consider it another way, imagine if a senator in 1945 claimed the U.S. declaration of war on Japan only allowed U.S. forces to operate on Japanese home islands, but not, say, Okinawa. Geographic limitation of the battlespace in a present, authorized war is incongruent with military strategy.
That said, the Islamic State and al Qaeda are two separate terrorist groups (although they were once one and the same) and 16 years have passed since Sept. 11. Correspondingly, it makes sense to me that we have a specific and updated authorization of military force against named organizations including ISIS, al Qaeda, and their affiliated organizations. That authorization could also qualify the president's ability to deploy thousands of forces on a long-term timetable.
As an extension, it would make sense to approve an additional authorization for the continuing deployment of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Such a resolution might say something like, "Whereas it is in the national security interests of the United States to deny safe haven to terrorist organizations, the president is authorized to use force to support the democratically elected governments of Iraq and Afghanistan against said organizations."
Were I the president, and had the Senate passed Paul's amendment, I would have refused to sign its attached bill unless replacement resolutions were already approved.
Still, it's also important to note that Paul is concerned about policy as much as he is legal principle. Speaking on MSNBC Wednesday morning, Paul referenced Afghanistan and said: "There is no winnable solution. That debate needs to come to the forefront." Paul may or may not be correct in his assessment (I think he's wrong), but regardless, the policy merits of using force in Afghanistan and the principle of whether an authorization is necessary for that action are two linked but functionally separate factors.
Regardless, Paul's defeat Wednesday won't be the end of this story.
If nothing else, Paul deserves credit for bringing attention to this issue. War is a terrible thing and, at least at the observational level, legislative scrutiny of war is a wise thing to employ.