Evolution is cool, huh? Animals adapt to new environments. Humans evolve to the point where we can conceive of, produce, and consume barbecue-flavored potato chips. Amazing.
What’s much less cool is when evolution leads to a wedding procession in Yemen being blown up by an American drone strike. But this is exactly what the evolution of the Authorization for Use of Military Force has led to (along with many other instances of civilian deaths, American military deaths, and regional destabilization).
I tend to disagree with the notion promulgated by originalists that a group of slave-owning white men came up with the be-all end-all document in terms of fair and effective governance. But one thing they definitely got right in the Constitution was the idea that a declaration of war ought to require all the trials and tribulations of passing through both houses of Congress. War was meant to be a serious and costly undertaking. Now it’s probably as easy for the president to authorize a drone strike as it is for me to call an Uber.
On September 14, 2001, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) cast the sole “nay” vote on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Since then she has gained allies in her fight against endless war. This past June, an amendment she attached to the National Defense Authorization Act that would terminate the AUMF was approved with bipartisan support (the amendment was later removed by the House Rules Committee). On September 13 Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) forced a vote on an amendment he authored that would have seen the AUMF expire in six months. It was rejected.
What these efforts prove, however, is that there is a growing diverse coalition of political actors who object to continued military action abroad and that now is the time to ramp up the push to bring at least a measure of humanity and sanity to America’s foreign policy. There are many compelling reasons to oppose the AUMF’s continued, unchecked existence, including the fact that it has led to US military action in fourteen different countries, justified secretive drone strikes, and removed any semblance of public oversight regarding the use of force in foreign countries.
One hears echoes of George Orwell’s famous line: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” It’s exactly what the AUMF is doing—acclimating the public to the idea of a country perpetually at war.
Part of the issue here is that “war” has become very cheap, at least in terms of American lives. Drones still impose a cost, however—it’s just that in the eyes of many policymakers, the lives of civilians in countries like Yemen or Somalia are meaningless, especially if they’re terminated in a quest to ensure the perceived safety of Americans. Think of recent campaigns—whether presidential or congressional. A question that’s always asked of the candidates is: “Would you consider putting boots on the ground in (current geopolitical hotspot)?” This is because boots on the ground could lead to American casualties, which could lead to eroding voter support. Seldom asked is the question: “Do you support the extrajudicial execution of foreign nationals?” because their deaths are considered unlikely to weigh into the average voter’s consideration at the polls, especially if they are presented as necessary in a global campaign to keep Americans safe. Whether or not indiscriminate drone strikes actually do so, however, is an entirely different question.
The evidence is not perfect, and there is no consensus among those who study the question, but there is reason to believe that the sort of aggressive drone campaigns the Bush and (to a greater extent) Obama administrations waged under the authority of the AUMF actually work against American interests, through their radicalizing effects on populations that see family members’ and friends’ lives ended in strikes that US officials will claim killed only combatants.
A humanist evaluation of the issue (of drones, but also more generally of the unsupervised and interminable warfare enabled by the AUMF) requires us to be both rational and compassionate. As noted, there is evidence to suggest that this perpetual warfare is not just ineffective, but in fact counterproductive. From a humane perspective, the calculus that makes one American life worth the termination of countless foreign lives, whether civilian or combatant, is untenable.
The clear conclusion is that it’s well past time to end the AUMF and return war to its intended position as an inconvenient, difficult, and costly option of last resort. Collectively, we have an obligation to throw our political support behind those who, like Rep. Barbara Lee, would like to see sanity and humanity restored to this country’s foreign policy.