Senate Refuses to Stop Endless War

Sixteen years after its passage, the Senate has rejected an effort to repeal the Congressional authorization that has been used as a blank check for military action around the globe, says David Swanson of World Beyond War

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.

Today is the 16th anniversary of one of the most consequential pieces of U.S. legislation this century. It’s called the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, or the AUMF. Now, the AUMF was passed just days after the attacks of 9/11. In the 16 years since, it’s been used as a blank check for US military action around the world, including in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria today. On Wednesday, the Senate rejected a new effort by Senator Rand Paul to repeal the AUMF and debate a new authorization for war. Many Democrats joined with Republicans to defeat the measure by a count of 61 to 36.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and director of WorldBeyondWar.org. David, welcome.

DAVID SWANSON: Thanks, Aaron.

AARON MATE: Your thoughts on both this anniversary today of the AUMF and on the eve of it, a measure to repeal it being defeated in the Senate?

DAVID SWANSON: I think it’s worth recognizing every time we hit this sort of anniversary that here we’ve very quickly more than doubled military spending, kept it at close to that level, sending it up again if the legislation that’s in Congress goes through, and we are much the worse off for it. The world is less stable. More people are dead. There are more enemies of the United States. There’s more weapons proliferation, more terrorism. The wars are counterproductive and incredibly costly in every sense. And here you have a proposal in one house of the Congress, the other house wouldn’t even give a vote on it, to end this what you call a blank check for war after war after war with at least a half dozen wars going right now depending on how you count them. And the sum total of the Senators who want to end the wars and simply want to re-authorize the wars in a different way adds up to about a third of the Senate, which is absolutely disgraceful.

AARON MATE: David, at the risk of being naïve, let me try to introduce a potential ray of hope, which is that when the AUMF was first passed 16 years ago, there was only one lawmaker in either chamber to vote against it. And now, at least with 36 voting for debate, that number is increasing. But on Barbara Lee, I want to play a clip of her because this week, she urged her House colleagues to debate the AUMF in the hopes of … What she wants to do is ultimately repeal it, as she was the only one, again, to oppose it 16 years ago. So here she is.

BARBARA LEE: While Congress has been missing in action, these wars have spiraled out of the control just as I feared. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service shows that this authorization has been used more than 37 times in 14 countries to justify military action. These include operations at Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretapping, and recent military actions in Libya, in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and many more. And this report only looked at unclassified military actions. How many more military actions are happening without the knowledge of the American people? In the 16 years since the AUMF was enacted, three presidents have used this legislation to wage endless war, and as long as this AUMF stays on the book, any president will be able to use this blank check to wage war anywhere, anytime in perpetuity.

AARON MATE: David, your thoughts on what she’s saying there. Also, in the context of the House, which she’s a member of, there was some movement there a few months ago. We spoke to you earlier in the summer when the House Appropriations Committee had advanced a measure to debate the AUMF, so there was at least for a moment some signs of some movement in the House.

DAVID SWANSON: There was, undone then by the House so-called leadership. I think what Congresswoman Lee did in her vote 16 years ago was absolutely right, and I think that what she says is absolutely right. But I think there’s something additional she should say, and I can’t imagine why she doesn’t and why nobody on Capitol Hill does, and that is that even if the president has this AUMF, even if the president has a Congressional declaration of war in all the specifics for each and every war, it doesn’t make a single one of these wars legal because they are all illegal under the United Nations Charter and they are all illegal under the Kellogg–Briand Pact. And if we’re going to try to be a nation of laws cooperating with the rest of the world as a legal enterprise, we ought to recognize treaties that the United States is party to as the supreme law of the land under Article 6 of the Constitution.

AARON MATE: All those countries that Congresswoman Lee mentioned there, I think the number was something like at least 37 times in 14 countries, if I recall her right. Can you talk about just the expansiveness of that, how the US has managed to take a measure that was passed in response to 9/11 to wage war wherever they want?

DAVID SWANSON: Yeah. This measure in the Senate would’ve repealed two AUMFs, including the second one from a year later on Iraq in particular. But it is the original one that has been most used and abused to … Has been treated, in fact, as an open-ended blank check for war anywhere anytime when if you actually read it, it authorizes, arguably unconstitutionally, but it authorizes war on those responsible for the attacks of 9/11 and those associated with or supporting those responsible in those attacks. So it doesn’t actually, if you read the language of it, authorize most of the warmaking that it’s been used for. But it’s been used for endless ongoing wars, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but in Pakistan, in Syria, in Yemen along with Saudi Arabia, an overthrow in Libya, significant warmaking from the air and otherwise in Somalia, drone strikes and missiles from dones and missiles from ships in countries around the world.

The Intercept just has up an article based on what an organization was able to obtain with a FOIA request from the White House on what in the world makes attacking Syria legal? Because the AUMF is not a good excuse for sending missiles into Syria. Whether you take this as good or bad, in contrast to the Obama White House, which put out the most ludicrous legalistic claims for its actions, as did the Bush White House, the Trump White House just sent back a bunch of what it had been saying publicly and didn’t even bother to make any legal case whatsoever for its warmaking in Syria. It just doesn’t care.

And the question is whether anybody will force it to care. Congress, of course, has the power to cut off the money if it would. It also has the power to impeach a criminal president, but it didn’t do it with Bush, it didn’t do it with Obama. Will it do it with Trump? More than likely if it does, it will be for some other reason other than this most serious offense.

AARON MATE: On that issue of the Syria request, what did the White House actually say when they were asked to outline the legal basis for that military strike back in April?

DAVID SWANSON: They really didn’t. They really didn’t say. All they turned over in response to this FOIA request was public statements they had made, blurbs from individuals praising their bombing of Syria. Nothing resembling a legal case. Where if you went back to, the Obama White House had people like Harold Koh who was virtually the only legal scholar respected in the corporate media who supported Trump’s bombing in Syria. You had people like him making the most ludicrous claims that bombing a nation like Libya would not be war or even hostilities. It would non-hostile bombing. Whereas the Trump White House really can’t be bothered. It isn’t even making an effort.

AARON MATE: David, let’s talk about the activism around this issue. A few months ago, we did a story here on The Real News with one of the authors of a study out of the University of Minnesota, if I recall correctly, basically linking communities’ rate of military sacrifice, military casualties to support for Donald Trump. What they found was that since in these communities Hillary Clinton was perceived as the pro-war candidate based on her record of support for the Iraq War and then her instrumental role in the Libya intervention. Also, concurrently you had Trump on the campaign trail painting himself, at least with his rhetoric, as being anti-war. He claimed to oppose the Iraq War. He criticized Hillary’s stance on these issues. That led to a higher vote for Trump in areas where people have lost family members, community members to foreign wars. I’m wondering, on an activist level, do you see potential there for trying to reach those people on issues like this of this endless AUMF?

DAVID SWANSON: I think it is striking that so many people were willing to vote for Trump despite or because of his criticism of past wars, past Republican presidents’ warmaking, famous central causes of rhetorical defense for the Republican Party theretofore, including the war on Iraq. Was it more important to people to back someone from the right economically or someone racist? There could good or bad reasons here. But the fact is that you have a huge chunk of the US public that doesn’t want wars. And even public onions polls in support of, for example, bombing Syria will in the same polls say they want the war over quickly. They don’t want any more of it.

Trump I don’t think was ever seen as an anti-war candidate, but he may have been seen as less of a war candidate than Hillary Clinton, and I think that was a reasonable conclusion. But if you looked at his denunciation of overthrows and advocacy of fewer wars combined with his pronouncements that he would kill families and destroy nations and steal their oil and fight wars for resources and invest in a larger military, “rebuild the military” as every single Senator said in the debate this week, “We must rebuild the military” constantly year after year after year after year as if somebody ever unbuilt it, that I think was the key factor in predicting where Trump would go. Anybody who wants more money in the military is going to give you more wars whether they want them or not.

AARON MATE: Finally, David, in terms of the efforts to push back on this, what is going on in the activist community, the anti-war activist community these days? Are there any big events coming up that people should be looking out for?

DAVID SWANSON: Millions of things. WorldBeyondWar.org is a good website. Resolutions still be passed against this budget shift of money to the military. But we do have a big conference coming up in Washington, DC called No War 2017: War and the Environment that brings together peace organizations and environmental organizations and activists and speakers to try to build a stronger movement together given the incredible impact that war and war preparations have on the environment. And we’re also doing a big flotilla of kayaks and boats to the Pentagon on the Potomac River on the Pentagon Lagoon with giant banners saying not just “no more wars for oil” but “no more oils for war.” The Pentagon is the top cause of climate chaos. Those are at WorldBeyondWar.org.

AARON MATE: How’s that going to work? I imagine the Pentagon might not look too kindly on a bunch of kayaks approaching its shore.

DAVID SWANSON: There is a lagoon just off the Potomac River right in front of the Pentagon. You can see pictures of what we’re going to do if you go to WorldBeyondWar.org and click on “The Pentagon Flotilla.” There is a marina with ships where people take their boats out into the Potomac River, and we can launch hundreds of kayaks and canoes there. It’s not a risk-arrest protest kind of event. It’s a family-friendly event. We’re just taking boats out in four feet of water with no current. You don’t need any skills. You don’t need your own boat. We have the kayaks. But just sign-up before you show up, and do that at WorldBeyondWar.org.

AARON MATE: David, we’ll be looking out for that, and we thank you for joining us. David Swanson, author, activist, journalist, director of WorldBeyondWar.org. David, thank you.

DAVID SWANSON: Thank you, Aaron.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.