When her amendment sailed through the House Appropriations Committee last month, even Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, was surprised. For more than a decade, she has been trying unsuccessfully to get Congress to debate the use of military force.
Soon after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed legislation authorizing the use of military force by the president “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism.”
This 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, as it is called, contained no end date and left open for debate which military actions could be covered by it. At the time, Rep. Lee was the only member of the House to vote against the bill.
The U.S. has used the 2001 AUMF to justify at least 37 instances of military action or deployment to 14 countries. (The U.S. invasion of Iraq was the only action that received a separate authorization, in 2002.) It is quite a stretch to imagine that the 2001 authorization, passed years before a group like ISIS even existed, could somehow be seen as providing legal justification for current U.S. military actions.
It looked as though this open-ended approval for U.S. military action might finally change with the surprising passage of Lee’s amendment in July, which received the support of all committee members except one. But it wasn’t to be that simple. The amendment, which would have ended the 2001 AUMF in eight months, allowing Congress time to debate and pass new legislation, was removed by House leadership before it went to the House floor. Their argument was that it should be part of an authorization bill, not a funding bill.
Regardless of the legislative vehicle, the committee’s strong vote showed there is support in Congress for addressing the issue of military force. Some proposals for a new AUMF already exist. Senators Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, have introduced a version that would authorize U.S. military action in six countries against ISIS, al-Qaida, the Taliban and “associated forces.” It would end after five years unless Congress acted to extend it.
As followers of the Prince of Peace, we as Mennonites are called to oppose the use of military force, even in a more limited context. But at a minimum, Congress should have this debate, which would allow the American public to weigh in more formally.
In 2015, Mennonite Church USA passed a resolution decrying our country’s “endless war.” It says, “This is a different kind of war. . . . Often the enemy is described vaguely as ‘terror’ or ‘insecurity.’ This continuous state of war is the new normal. One consequence is that our nation no longer experiences times of national debate related to the morality of its participation in war.”
The resolution urges church members to “a renewed emphasis on trusting God and the way of Jesus, not violence, for our security” and calls for “public ecumenical witness” to these beliefs. Urging Congress to debate the morality of U.S. military actions is one way to put our beliefs into action.
Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director of the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.