On Senate Floor, Bennet Urges Colleagues to Repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force
Remarks on the Senate floor in support of repealing the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force — As Delivered.
This week, the Senate debates whether to end two authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq.
Congress passed the first authorization in 1991 for the original Gulf War — a strategic and narrowly scoped campaign to liberate Kuwait and punish Saddam Hussein’s unlawful aggression.
Congress passed the second one in 2002, paving the way for the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq and the biggest blunder in the history of American foreign policy.
We’ve spent far too little time on this floor considering the legacy of both wars, and I want to thank Senator Kaine and Senator Young for this long overdue debate about the constitutional responsibility of Congress in our foreign policy.
Most Americans, I think, would be surprised to learn Congress has much of a role in foreign policy, because, for virtually my entire time in the Senate, there’s little evidence we’ve played one.
The Founders envisioned a very specific role for Congress, and it wasn’t to micromanage foreign policy. They knew matters of war and peace required a level of coherence and action at odds with a legislative branch that — by design — often moves slowly and encourages disagreement — and some would say sometimes even incoherence.
But if the Founders had a reason for giving the executive broad flexibility to conduct war, they also had a reason for giving Congress sole power to declare war.
They wanted to make it hard to start a war, not easy, Mr. President. They knew that presidents would often find war tempting as means to amass power and run roughshod over our constitutional checks and balances. From their study of ancient times, they also understood the ways in which endless wars threaten and undermine democracy.
Here’s what James Madison wrote in 1795, just six years after ratification of the Constitution: “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded…No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of [continual] warfare.”
The Founders understood this because they studied history — they knew our history better than we know it ourselves — and sought to apply its lessons to decisions in their time.
For example, they read about how the 27-year war between Athens and Sparta corroded Athenian democracy from within — by straining its economy, by feeding unrest, and creating a vacuum for strongmen who were peddling easy answers to difficult questions.
And it’s why they gave Congress — not the president — the sole power to declare war, but also to ratify treaties, confirm our military and diplomatic leaders, and approve our budget for national security.
And they expected Congress to oversee foreign policy actively on behalf of the American people.
And if we look back over the last 30 years — Mr. President, twice the length of time that the pages on this floor have even been alive — you look at the last 30 years from when Congress first authorized the use of force against Iraq, until today — what can we say about how Congress has lived up to its responsibility? Has Congress fulfilled the responsibility that the Framers gave it?
I’m afraid there’s not very much that’s good in that record, Mr. President… For 30 years, I would argue, this body has been derelict in its responsibility — and it’s come at a terrible time, and with a terrible price. A terrible price.
If we go back three decades to the early 90s, I had just started law school — the first President Bush was in the White House, and we were living in the early years of a post-Cold War world.
President Bush had inherited what he called a “New World Order” following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States lost a fundamental organizing principle that’d been with us, really, for decades.
The Cold War was not just a fight against the Soviets; it was a fight against tyranny. For Americans of my generation, the Cold War defined our foreign policy, for good and for ill.
It also defined us as a people and defined who we were not. It gave us purpose, it unified us, it made us deliberate about our role in the world.
Mr. President, you may have read today — I did — a new poll from the University of Chicago where, for the first time, there is a vast minority of Americans who say patriotism is important to them. For the first time, there is a vast minority of Americans who say religion is important to them.
You know, the vast majority of people are worried that they’re not going to provide something better for the next generation, which is where I think a lot of that comes from.
But think about that change — that change from when we were being raised here to how people feel about it today. It’s dramatic.
And I would say we can’t give up. There’s a lot of patriotic business for us to do. Not just on the floor of this Senate, but in America today.
I will argue, and I will in a minute, that there’s as much for us to do now as there was when we were in the Cold War and we were having our fight with the Soviet Union.
Those principles of engagement and disengagement, of agreement and disagreement, but a way of thinking about the world, had an important effect in terms of constraining our actions — limiting to some extent our behavior abroad and disciplining our politics at home.
In our fight against Communism, we made more than our fair share of egregious mistakes: to be sure, among them, the worst I would say, the Vietnam War.
Still, our foreign policy in those days and the values that underlay it, you know, in total, in sum, strengthened our democracy at home and advanced U.S. interests abroad. Not perfectly, but mostly.
The fall of the Berlin Wall disoriented us. Could America continue to lead the world without the moral and political organizing principle of an ideological foe? That was the question.
One answer was to reject the question, to sort of assume it away; to imagine that the triumph over Soviet Communism meant that liberal order — our democracy and capitalism — had prevailed. And there were people writing books about the “end of history,” that the President will remember, saying that’s exactly what had happened.
But when Saddam Hussein threatened that new order by invading his neighbor, Kuwait, the United States rallied the world to drive him out. In just seven months, our military routed the Iraqi army, liberated Kuwait, and effectively put Saddam Hussein in a box.
George H.W. Bush showed restraint. The first President Bush showed restraint. No country in the world — no tyrant in the world — was more locked down by our no-fly zone than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
And we had built international support from all over the world for what George Bush had done. You think it wasn’t a hard decision for him to say, we could go into Baghdad, we could go in and get that terrible dictator. But he knew we didn’t have an answer for the sectarian violence that would break out in the aftermath of toppling Saddam Hussein, so he showed restraint.
And I think, at the time, our total and swift victory gave confidence to those who believed our political project was done; that history had ended; that we had finally swept tyranny into the dustbin of history; and that all we had to do was clap our hands, sit back, and watch democracy spread.
And unfortunately as is often the case in human events — as is always the case in human events — reality turned out to be far messier.
And that naive optimism ended when Al-Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed a plane in Pennsylvania, murdering 3,000 of our fellow Americans. And so the first decade of the 2000s was characterized by a single-minded focus on responding to the pain, to the shock, and to the tragedy of 9/11 — and all of this, I think, had a disorienting effect.
And since those times, since those days, we have been fighting not a Cold War against a single rival power but a perpetual global war on terror that finds enemies everywhere and has led to catastrophic decisions. A perpetual war on terror that has terrorized us.
And this endless war led Congress to cede vast authority to the president to wage that war, surrendering our constitutional responsibility to set the boundaries, to debate the wisdom, and oversee the use of lethal force in the name of the American people, which is one of the reasons that we were sent here in the first place.
In the first Gulf War, Congress’ deference to the executive had no significant consequences, because the first Bush administration actually had a coherent strategy based on limited and achievable objectives: liberate Kuwait; defeat the Iraqi army; contain Saddam.
After 9/11, congressional deference cost the American people and our leadership in the world dearly.
In Afghanistan, what began as a limited mission to destroy al-Qaeda metastasized into a 20-year campaign to transform the country into a liberal democracy — something Afghanistan would never become, certainly not over that time period, and probably not in our lives — at a cost of over 2,300 American service members, nearly 4,000 contractors, and over 46,000 Afghan civilians.
And in 2002, when the second President Bush came to Congress and misrepresented the threat of weapons of mass destruction — which Sadaam had destroyed years before, and which many of our allies, and our own intelligence agencies, doubted that he had; when they claimed that Saddam’s secular regime was somehow tied to Al-Qaeda, a terrorist group driven by religious fanaticism; when they said the war could pay for itself with Iraqi oil; conclude in months, not years; and that we could somehow turn a nation whose sectarian rivalries Saddam had prevented from exploding through violence and oppression, into yet another pluralist democracy — most people in Congress went along for the ride.
Except, I should say, for a few of my colleagues still in this body, including Senator Durbin, Senator Murray, Senator Reed, Senator Stabenow, Senator Wyden, my former senior senator Mark Udall — then a member of the House.
I say to the pages that are here: mark their names in the history books for the vote that they took. That was a courageous vote that they took. I believe the presiding officer’s predecessor, Chairman Leahy, from the great state of Vermont, took that courageous vote as well.
Except for them — and for my colleague Mark Udall, then a member of the House — except for them, almost no one here asked if there was even a strategy, or what it was.
They didn’t ask how toppling a Sunni dictator in a Shia majority country would strengthen Iran.
And I can assure you, they didn’t ask what China was doing — as we committed ourselves to a second nation-building project in the Middle East.
And by acquiescing to the president, Congress essentially cut off the American people from the vital debate about the true cost and consequences of the war.
And in the end, the cost was terrible. The Iraq War killed over 4,600 American servicemembers and over 3,600 contractors.
Over 50 times more troops were killed or injured in the post-war insurgency than in the march to Baghdad.
The war killed 200,000 Iraqi civilians and displaced over nine million. It left the country in ruins and its identity in tatters.
Twenty years later, Iraqis are still trying to pick up the pieces. Since the war, corruption has stolen $150 billion of Iraq’s wealth — that’s over half of the country’s entire GDP last year, Mr. President.
Twenty years later, Iran is also in a stronger position than ever, seizing on the vacuum we created with proxies from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon, to Yemen, threatening our troops in the region and vital allies like Israel. China is cutting deals today, Mr. President, having avoided those twenty years of bedlam. They’re now showing up and making peace agreements between the Iranians and the Saudis, not having paid the price that we paid.
And twenty years later, America’s global leadership and credibility have yet to recover as a result of the decisions that we made.
In the name of spreading freedom across the globe, we instead spread images of chaos and civil strife; of torture at Abu Ghraib; of waterboarding and black sites — all violations of the values that we claimed to serve. That I believe we do serve.
And to pay for it all, Mr. President, we borrowed $8 trillion from our children. $8 trillion from the next generation of Americans.
In fact, we were so committed to not paying for that war — to not sacrificing the way our parents and grandparents did when they were engaged in wars — we were so committed to not bearing the burden, that we cut taxes twice and borrowed another $10 trillion from our children to pay for those.
Imagine what we could have done for this country, if we had spent that $18 trillion here at home — the good-paying jobs we could have created; the 21st century industries and infrastructure we could have built; the opportunity we could have created for the next generation.
Instead, from their perspective, we would have been better off lighting that $18 trillion on fire.
And I bring all of this up not to relitigate the past, but to remind us of the profound costs to America — and the world — of giving presidents a blank check in foreign policy; of shirking our constitutional responsibility, our duty, to provide real oversight and hold the executive accountable to our democratic values, to the rule of law, and the voices and opinions of the American people.
And we should acknowledge that there will be moments when doing so will be inconvenient for us in the short-term. There are countries around the world that are not inconvenienced by the set of values that we purport to live by.
But the fact that they’re inconvenient doesn’t mean that they’re not right.
As the Founders understood, there’s always going to be a temptation to trade freedom for the illusion of security; to act instead of consult; to ignore our commitment to human rights and the rule of law for expediency; or to turn a blind eye to corruption or incompetence by a president of your own party — especially of your own party.
But over the long-term, our willingness to resist those temptations, I think, is what makes America different. It’s what makes our foreign policy different. It’s what has made us a beacon to the world, even if our light has flickered at times. It’s why the world doesn’t look to China or Russia for moral leadership; it looks to us.
Because American foreign policy at its best has never been about serving the whims of a tyrant or party boss; it’s about serving the American people and offering a better vision for humanity through the power of our example and partnership with the world.
And it’s why we in Congress have to take our roles seriously in this democracy. We really do.
To take our obligation to the American people just as seriously; and not simply honor our constitutional balance of power in the breach — but every single time.
So my hope is that this modest vote we are going to take, Mr. President, is the beginning of a new commitment by Congress to fulfill our constitutional responsibility; to bring the American people back into this conversation about what our global leadership should look like in the 21st century; and to work in partnership with the president to define a new organizing principle for our leadership.
Because we don’t have another 30 years to wait, and the world is watching.
And I for one know that, I think, when we pick up the enduring values that reflect our foreign policy at its best; that reflect a sense of justice at home as well; when we can stand for both freedom and for opportunity, which we have decade after decade after decade — there is a coalition of countries all over, all around the world, that would rather sign up for that vision than for the tyranny that some offer from other societies.
But we have to remember what the Founders told us: in our time, we have to exercise this responsibility that we have here in Congress, and we need to do the work faithfully that the American people sent us here to do.