Members of the United States Senate are patting themselves on the back. They officially just voted to end the war in Iraq — sort of.
The Senate voted Wednesday to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the legislation is being praised by its supporters in the Senate as a reassertion of the war-making powers of Congress. “This vote shows that Congress is prepared to call back our constitutional role in deciding how and when a nation goes to war,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, and Republican Todd Young of Indiana, argued that the vote sent a signal that the American people are still in charge when it comes to deciding when to go to war.
But the Senate vote came 20 years too late. It was as if Congress had voted to end the Vietnam War in the 1990s.
U.S. counterterrorism operations around the world, including drone strikes and Special Operations raids, will not be affected, even in Iraq.
It was a symbolic vote, not an act of courage. It was a historical artifact, like endorsing a new monument honoring the war’s dead. It came just days after the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion, and, even if passed by the House and signed into law by President Joe Biden, it will have no impact on any ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq or anywhere else. American combat operations ended in Iraq years ago, and there are now only about 2,500 U.S. military personnel in the country, acting as trainers and advisers to Iraqi forces; their work in Iraq will continue uninterrupted. U.S. counterterrorism operations around the world, including drone strikes and Special Operations raids, will not be affected, even in Iraq; the broader 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in the war on terrorism remains intact.
As if to underscore the abstract nature of Wednesday’s vote, the Senate threw in a repeal of the authorization for the 1991 Persian Gulf War for good measure.
The vote was so meaningless that it was not really a reassertion of Congress’s constitutional authority over matters of war and peace. The congressional battle over the Iraq war that really mattered took place 16 years ago, in 2007, when the debate in the Senate involved a young Democratic senator from Illinois named Barack Obama and the veteran chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden.
That congressional battle had truly high stakes, and it went very badly for the war’s opponents. They failed to end the war, and the conflict raged on for years.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration ginned up support for going to war in Iraq by spreading a White House-sanctioned conspiracy theory that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks. They followed that up with misleading claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In October 2002, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force with significant bipartisan support, and President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Bush won reelection in 2004, but the war turned so grim and bloody that the 2006 midterm elections became a referendum on Iraq. The Democrats won control of both the House and the Senate in November 2006, leading to a showdown beginning in early 2007 between Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress over Iraq.
The Democrats wanted the United States to begin withdrawing troops, but Bush wanted to escalate the war, and he wanted Congress to pay for it. The two sides dug in.
As the months passed, Democratic leaders struggled with how to force Bush to set a timetable for withdrawal without looking like they were withholding funds needed to support American troops in the field. “We’re not about to cut off funding for troops,” Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who was chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said at the time. “That would be injurious to our troops and their families.”
In February 2007, Obama announced that he was running for president, and his views on Iraq at the time were clearly influenced by his fledgling campaign. He had been an early opponent of the war, which would prove to be an advantage in the Democratic primaries, yet he was also trying to carefully calibrate his language and his votes so as to avoid any political damage that would come from appearing not to support U.S. troops. When he was asked at the time if he could find a way to support American soldiers while not paying for Bush’s escalation, Obama said: “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. My understanding so far is that we can do it constitutionally, but as a practical matter if the president chooses to go ahead with a deployment and then simply runs out of money halfway through and those troops are already there, then you start getting into a game of chicken. That is the big dilemma in trying to figure out what mechanism we can use to stop what I’m convinced is the wrong policy, without shortchanging the young men and women who’ve already been deployed.” Obama’s comments at the time provided an early sign of his excessively cautious approach to national security as president.
Biden, then the influential chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed the idea of only paying for some operations in Iraq. “We have a standing army with a budget of hundreds of billions of dollars. You can’t go in and, like a tinker toy, and play around and say, ‘You can’t spend the money on this piece and this piece.’” Biden’s comments were probably a rebuke of Obama, a presidential rival at the time; Biden announced he was running for president in January 2007, not long before Obama.
In the end, Congress backed down. Bush vetoed Democratic-backed legislation that would have set a deadline for the start of troop withdrawals, and the Democrats lacked the votes to override the veto. Next, Bush won the game of chicken that Obama had warned about. With money for the war about to run dry, Congress approved another $100 billion in Iraq war funding; Bush signed that bill in May 2007.
Congress never again came as close to ending the war in Iraq on its own.