Rand Paul on repealing the 2001 AUMF: We can't bind the next generation to endless war

A solid speech, worth your time if you can spare it, but there hasn’t been a less opportune moment for this push in years. The left doesn’t much care about scaling back America’s campaigns abroad as all of them have Obama’s fingerprints on them by now and none apart from Afghanistan require a major troop commitment. The smaller the risk of U.S. casualties, the less traction the anti-war movement will get. The right also doesn’t care about scaling back America’s campaigns, partly because it’s more hawkish than the left temperamentally but mainly because it doesn’t want to tie Trump’s hands. Neither party sweats massive executive authority to initiate military conflict when it’s their guy in charge. If Trump says it’s time for war with North Korea then it’s time for war with North Korea. Plus, for all the ink spilled over Trump’s low approval rating, Congress’s approval rating is pitifully low at just 16 percent, falling from 50 percent among Republicans in February to just 18 percent now. Paul’s cri de coeur to return warmaking power to the legislature would play better if most of the country didn’t hold Congress in contempt.

But he was, is, and forever will remain correct on the merits, at least until we amend the Constitution to remove that troublesome bit of language in Article I granting Congress, not the president, the authority to declare war. Watch McCain’s rebuttal to Paul’s speech below and you’ll see two levels of disingenuousness at work. One is his argument that pulling the plug on the 2001 AUMF would leave thousands of U.S. troops stranded abroad with no legal support for their operations. But that’s not true: Paul’s amendment repealing the AUMF came with a six-month implementation delay to give Congress time to reauthorize — or de-authorize — individual conflicts. McCain also claims that he agrees with Paul that the 2001 AUMF should be scrapped *if* it’s replaced with an updated authorization granting the president power to wage war against ISIS and other enemies who weren’t named (or didn’t exist) in 2001. For McCain, though, AUMFs appear to be hortatory, not binding law. When Obama was thinking of bombing Syria in 2013 without approval from Congress, Maverick’s reaction was essentially to shrug and say whaddaya gonna do. The House wasn’t going to impeach the president for firing missiles at a murderous scumbag like Bashar Assad, McCain drily observed. He seems to view a new war-on-terror AUMF as preferable, a political nicety, more so than a constitutionally mandatory grant of power from the people’s representatives to the commander-in-chief. If that’s true, he should own his position: Dispense with AUMFs altogether and declare his belief that Article II permits the president to do whatever he wants, whatever Article I’s warmaking language has to say about it. AUMFs shouldn’t be “niceties.” They should mean something.

To no one’s surprise, Paul’s amendment was roundly defeated after this speech, tabled by a 61-36 vote. Just two Republicans, Mike Lee and Dean Heller, voted with him against killing the amendment. Thirteen Democrats, mostly from red and purple states, voted with the majority. Note Paul’s point about one generation binding another to its wars, which is an interesting way to think about America’s endless mission in Afghanistan. The country thankfully hasn’t had to consider the problem of generation-spanning conflicts previously in its history; a sunset provision that would let Congress reauthorize a conflict every 15 years wouldn’t be much to ask of a legislature that’s eager to exert its prerogatives over war. For one that’s terrified of exerting those prerogatives and happy to let the president shoulder all blame for military decisions, it’s unimaginable.