House Panel Votes to Debate Post-9/11 Blank Check for War
The House Appropriations Committee has advanced a measure proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee that would repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which the U.S. has used to wage wars around the globe
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. When the US Congress authorized the use of force for the so-called war on terror, Congress member Barbara Lee was the only lawmaker to vote no. Well, now, 16 years later, some of her colleagues will have a chance to join her. The House Appropriations Committee has advanced a measure proposed by Lee that would repeal the 2001 authorization for use of military force. The US has relied on that measure to wage its wars in not just Afghanistan, but Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere around the globe. Joining me is David Swanson, author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org. David, welcome.
DAVID SWANSON: Thanks, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: Thanks so much for joining us. Let’s talk about this initial measure, what the AUMF was, and now the significance of the house panel, I believe for the first time, advancing a measure that could repeal it.
DAVID SWANSON: Well, this was quite arguably unconstitutional passing of the buck from Congress to the president, giving the president authorization to make war in any number of times and places as long as there was a connection to the crimes of September 11th, 2001. So, any war against, any use of force against those responsible or complicit in those crimes, the president could, without a constitutional declaration or authorization from Congress wage such wars. Of course, even if you think that was constitutional, even if you think that was acceptable, given the existence of treaties the United States is party to that banned war across the board, it has arguably become radically outdated. This is, as you said, 16 years later. It is being used as one of a number of excuses or justifications for several different wars, some of which arguably have no connection whatsoever to the purpose in the AUMF.
AARON MATÉ: Well, let me give you one possible example, Syria. Now, just recently, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, was asked about the legal basis for the US military campaign in Syria. This is what he said.
Interviewer: [inaudible 00:02:27] what’s the legal justification for targeting Syria government forces?
Joseph Dunford: We are there and have legal justification under the authorization use of military force. We are prosecuting a campaign against ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria.
AARON MATÉ: So, David Swanson, that’s General Joseph Dunford, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff saying that this measure in 2001 gives US the legal justification to be waging war in Syria in 2017. Your response to that?
DAVID SWANSON: Well, arguably, it’s an outrageous claim this many years later. It would seem to sanction the counterproductive generation of and production of more anti-US terrorism and expansion of those terrorist groups through war policies that create blow back as then being self-authorizing. As long as you continue to generate more terrorists that have some chronological connection back to those against whom this authorization was made, you still have the authorization. Of course, if the authorization is taken away, which is what Congress has taken one step toward doing, that takes a way that excuse.
Then, they have to go back to the Bush slash Obama excuse that the president simply has war powers, although you and I can’t find them in the constitution, or that it’s not really a war, not really hostilities as Harold Coe argued to Congress about Libya, or some other excuse. Until, Congress cuts off the money, as Congressman Walter Jones has a bill to do for Afghanistan. Or, Congress impeaches somebody. But, this would be a big step, to take away that primary excuse and arguably have a good chance of creating a debate, at least, in Congress over how and whether to reauthorize one or more of these wars.
AARON MATÉ: A debate that in 2001 was only represented on the opposing side by just one member, as I mentioned earlier, Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Can you talk about her stance when she took it right after 9/11, how politically tough that was for her to warn that this was a blank check for war, and her efforts, continuing today, with this amendment to keep the issue alive?
DAVID SWANSON: Yeah, all Congress members, all representatives do good and bad. We should stop treating them as friends or enemies, and praise the good and denounce the bad. So, I have great criticism for Congresswoman Lee over her xenophobia with regard to Russia, and anger at Trump for meeting with Putin rather than escalating hostilities toward Putin, but incredible respect and praise for her relentless efforts, including right through this committee vote, which I think surprised her, but she just kept pushing that rock up that hill, again and again, to take away this authorization for the use of military force. As well as her courageous stance and eloquent statement and vote back in 2001 for which I think she merited the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Although, of course it went to someone quite less deserving.
AARON MATÉ: Your comments there about Russia, I think, raise an interesting division, there is, right now inside the left. Barbara Lee tweeted after Trump’s meeting with Putin, as you mentioned, “Outraged with Trump’s two hour meeting with Putin, the man who orchestrated attacks on our democracy. Where do his loyalties lie?” But, in terms of not just Barbara Lee’s efforts, can you talk also about the grassroots efforts, what peace activists have done since 2001 to try to repeal the AUMF?
DAVID SWANSON: Well, peace groups and others around the country have pushed hard for this and lobbied for Congresswoman Lee’s measure and generated enormous petitions in support of it and held lobby meetings and rallies. It would be one very significant step, as would Congressman Jones’s bill to cut off the money for one of the wars, in Afghanistan, as would a global ban on nuclear weapon possession in a treaty, even without US membership. As would any pushback on the Trump budget proposal, which is where a lot of local peace efforts have been focused and have passed resolutions in numerous cities and through the US Conference of Mayors. There is great public resentment of these wars.
There was a remarkable academic study this past week finding that in key swing states, that sliver of the population that actually has casualties from these recent wars in their families was enough to swing the election. People who had voted for Obama and voted for Trump, as the, if you squinted hard enough, the less militaristic candidate. There is public support for what Congresswoman Lee is leading the effort on, and I think the more it becomes known, and hopefully this committee vote will help that, the greater chance it has of moving through the full Congress. If not this time, then next year. People have had enough of endless, endless, pointless wars in which the number one killer of US troops is suicide.
AARON MATÉ: David, on the issue of Syria, I have to point out a certain irony. The initial AUMF was passed on the grounds that it could be used to fight Al-Qaeda, right? Al-Qaeda of course being behind 9/11. But, in Syria, the US has been accused of actually abetting Al-Qaeda through its allies, the gulf states that have provided support to Al-Qaeda linked forces. This actually was recognized by a former advisor to Hillary Clinton according to WikiLeaks. They released an email recently showing that Jake Sullivan wrote to her, saying, “Al-Qaeda is on our side in Syria,” unquote. But, yet, the US is bombing Syria and claiming that its authorization to do so is based on the fact on the initial measure that authorized it to fight Al-Qaeda.
DAVID SWANSON: Yes, indeed. This was part of how public pressure stopped a major bombing campaign in Syria in 2013, was Congress members being confronted with why should we get in a war on the side of Al-Qaeda, after all these years of hearing about the evils of Al-Qaeda. Of course, the United States government had been arming Al-Qaeda and fueling the creation of ISIS knowingly predicting it would happen, and seeing it happen, and continuing to support it for years. But, by 2014, with the ISIS videos in the news, the public went along with the United States escalating its efforts in Syria with the understanding that it was getting into the war on the other side, though clearly it was getting into the war on both sides. It’s not just US weapons manufactured in the United States that are on multiple sides of most wars these days, it is the US military itself, where we have had CIA-trained, armed troops fighting department of so-called defense armed, trained troops in Syria. Yes, it is incredibly ironic. This is why another legislative measure that people should be supporting is Congresswoman Gabbard’s appropriately named Stop Arming Terrorists bill in the house of representatives.
AARON MATÉ: David, there’s also been some support for this at the local level around the country. The US Conference of Mayors recently passed an anti-war resolution of some kind.
DAVID SWANSON: Yes, indeed. A number of groups worked on this. The US Peace Council and Code Pink as well as the group that I work for, World Beyond War. One resolution that I drafted, that was tweaked in a number of different cities passed in a number of different cities, and Ithaca, New York took it to the US Conference of Mayors. New Haven, Connecticut, where the US Peace Council led the way took theirs to the US Conference of Mayors. A third resolution, and all three passed unanimously by mayors representing cities across the United States, addressed specifically the spending on nuclear weapons, but these three resolutions said do the opposite of the Trump budget proposal. Don’t move money from everything else to the military. Move money from the military to human and environmental needs.
To the great credit of the resolution that came out of New Haven and has now been passed by the US Conference of Mayors, all cities that have mayors in this conference, which is most cities, now have a mandate to pass their own resolution and to hold public hearings where every department and agency of their city government talk about what they could do with the money that is being wasted on … worse than wasted, on US militarism. So, this is something you can take from the US Conference of Mayors to your city government and say you have a mandate to do this. When are the meetings starting? When is the resolution passing? This is a step that I’m hoping we can build on.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a really novel way to connect the issue of US militarism abroad and domestic needs here in the US. I imagine being involved in the anti-war struggle is difficult at a time when, A, so much of the news is focused on Trump and Russia. Second of all, it’s hard to talk about things that are going on across the world when there are indeed so many problems here in the US. I’m wondering, David, as someone who’s very involved in the anti-war movement, if you could comment on that.
DAVID SWANSON: Well, when the US government is spending about a trillion dollars a year on militarism, 54% of discretionary spending this past year, 59% in Trump’s budget proposal, it’s very hard to talk about needs for anything else without talking about the place where all the money is going. You hear a lot about the billionaires hoarding wealth. Yet, if you taxed all that wealth away from the billionaires, you can only get once and once only the money that’s going, year, after year, after year, into preparations for war and wars themselves, counter-productively generating hostility and enemies, not reducing them, destroying the natural environment, eroding our rights, militarizing our police, corroding our culture. No upside, just downsides.
It’s hard for me to separate militarism abroad from militarized police and lack of funding for anything decent at home. A single airplane program, the F-35, could transform every residence in the United States to sustainable, clean energy. We could end starvation around the world, lack of clean drinking water around the world. We could put fast trains between every US city. The things we could do that we don’t dare dream of can be done for a fraction of US military spending, which is why the number one way in which the US military kills is by taking money away from where it’s actually needed. Far more than through the use of any weapon thus far.
AARON MATÉ: So, David. Finally, looking at the global picture, the international effort to curb or stop militarism received a boost last week when the UN General Assembly passed a measure that would be the first ever ban on the possession of nuclear weapons. Now, all the nuclear armed states, including the US and Russia were opposed, but I’m wondering if you can comment on what this measure means and where it goes now.
DAVID SWANSON: I think there’s a slight critical exception to that statement in that North Korea was the one nuclear armed country that initially supported the commencement of this process, of drafting this treaty. North Korea also being one of the nuclear armed countries that does not have a first strike policy. I think that ought to be fantastic news to CNN pundits and others who seem to be traumatically frightened by North Korea, that they’re open to a world without nuclear weapons. But, the fact that that rest of the world, that 122 countries backed the final language of this treaty, want to ban nuclear weapons from the earth. This is leadership. This is development of a step toward a sustainable world in which we may survive. It’s our responsibility to push those nations that are on the border to join the right side on this, and ultimately, to push the nuclear armed states, one by one to get with the rest of the world. This is the biggest step forward at the moment that deserves the most attention and the most support more than any legislation in Congress.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about North Korea, because that’s a very interesting point. You’re saying that initially, when this ban came up, North Korea was supportive. When it came to a vote, though, it did not vote in favor of it. What do you think accounts for that change? And, I have to say, isn’t it interesting that we never hear discussion of what you just raised, which is that initially, North Korea, which we hear so much about as a threat, was supportive, or at least welcoming of a measure that would ban nuclear weapons?
DAVID SWANSON: Well, one thing that changed was the seizing of the White House by Donald Trump and a change in rhetoric toward North Korea, which is something of an echo of what happened when George W. Bush took the White House and lumped North Korea into an axis of evil at a time when North Korea was complying with an agreement to end its nuclear program and was moving toward integration with South Korea. Things were actually very close to significant progress toward a peace settlement of a war that has never officially ended from 50 years ago. In the United States, we don’t hear about the steps that North Korea has been willing to take and its continued willingness to negotiate if the United States and South Korea will stop installing more missiles, will stop the threats, will stop the practice flights along its border. It’s willing to sit down and talk.
It seems that maybe the Trump White House is still open to that, and it’s helped significantly by the fact that for the first time since World War II, you have a government in South Korea that is strongly resisting US militarism toward the North and has stopped the installation of these so-called missile defense missiles that are seen as offensive by North Korea and China and Russia. This is a very encouraging step by South Korea and the South Korean people that through activism and through the process of impeachment that we might want to pay a little attention to ourselves, evicted a US puppet from the leadership of their government and put in someone willing to resist US militarism. Because, as the people of South Korea see it, the fighting is not between them and the North. It’s between Washington, DC, and the North. And, it’s up to us in the United States to educate ourselves about that fact and do something to change it.
AARON MATÉ: So, David, finally, wrapping up, going back to our top story, the repeal of the AUMF. As we see the potential now for this to go from committee to the full house floor, what you want to see people do who are concerned around this issue going forward?
DAVID SWANSON: People should, especially people in the United States, should contact their representative and their two senators and make clear to them that this is not some kind of reckless, rash move, that this will be part of a bill that won’t be passed for many months, and it has an eight month delay. There’ll be eight months before the AUMF is actually repealed. This is coming 16 years after the passage of this reckless emergency step that was not meant to be long-lived. Put the pressure in every way you can on your Congress members and Senators in both political parties. This was passed unanimously by the House Appropriations Committee and there is no reason it shouldn’t pass unanimously by the full Congress. It is achievable and they need to hear from us.
AARON MATÉ: David Swanson, author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He’s director of WorldBeyondWar.org. David, thanks a lot.
DAVID SWANSON: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And, thank you for joining us on The Real News.