Washington – It seems quaint to note in the summer of 2020 that America’s global war on terror will soon enter the last year of its second decade. Yet it’s not something that the junior senator from Kentucky, who has long opposed it, is prone to forget — and though Rand Paul’s attempts to end it are misguided, he is not wrong about Congress’s dereliction of duty.
On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress passed — with only one dissenting vote — the authorization for the use of military force against those who had attacked the United States three days before. Since its passage, the U.S. has conducted drone strikes and commando raids throughout most of the Islamic world, and in Afghanistan, the U.S. has waged the longest war in its history. All of this has had the consent of Congress because of the resolution passed just after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Paul tried and failed Wednesday to revoke that authorization. His amendment to the bill authorizing spending for the 2021 defense budget would also have required the Pentagon to devise an orderly withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan and award all military who fought in that war a bonus of $2,500.
Given that both major parties now appear to support ending the Afghanistan war, it would be reasonable to expect that resolution to have made its way into the Defense Department spending bill. But it failed by a vote of 60 to 33 in a procedural motion.
For now, that is a good thing. Even U.S. President Donald Trump’s ill-considered gambit in Afghanistan does not go as far as Paul’s plan: In theory, Trump’s withdrawal strategy could be paused or reversed based on the Taliban’s compliance with a secret annex signed earlier this year.
Nonetheless, there is a kernel of a good idea in Paul’s proposal. The 2001 authorization should not be scrapped altogether — it should be amended. As things now stand, Congress has little buy-in when it comes to what the U.S. does overseas in the war on terror. In this sense it has abdicated the oversight and war-making authorities granted to it in the U.S. Constitution. A better approach would be for the legislative branch to update the authorization and set it to expire unless renewed by a future Congress.
Paul and his supporters are correct when they point out that today al-Qaida, the group responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, is far weaker than it was nearly 20 years ago. At the same time, other terrorist threats have gotten stronger. The real threat to the U.S. and its allies has always been weak and corrupt governments in the Islamic world that enable terror organizations to take over large swaths of territory. That threat does not disappear just because America stops fighting.
Congress cannot just sit on the sidelines simply because the war against jihadist terror is long. A new generation of lawmakers should have a chance to vote for or against this war.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
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