By Adam DuBard
BOLOGNA, Italy – On January 3rd, the world awoke to the news that the United States had assassinated the head of Iran’s infamous Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike at Baghdad Airport. The killing of Soleimani, itself a dramatic escalation between Iran and the United States, sparked an immediate fear of further escalations in the region.
In America, as is tradition, politicians from both sides rushed to issue their opinions on the tactical strike. While those on the left rushed to decry President Trump’s decision as an unauthorized overstep of presidential powers, the fact of the matter is that both parties of Congress have consistently abdicated their duty to constrain presidential war powers, which has led to the perpetual state of war that the United States finds itself in.
Despite the outrage in the aftermath of the drone strike in Baghdad, this is far from the first time America has committed an extrajudicial assassination in the name of American security. In the 1970s, the Senate’s Church Committee discovered years of the CIA attempting to assassinate foreign leaders. However, this revelation didn’t prevent the US government from continuing the practice, as they continued to attempt to take out numerous foreign leaders who were viewed as potential threats, including Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
President Obama’s eight years in power established a concerning escalation of these tactics, taking advantage of advances in drone technology to terrorize civilians across the Middle East and Central Asia.
During his two terms, President Obama authorized over five hundred drone strikes, which resulted in anywhere from 301 to 801 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. These drone strikes targeted funerals, weddings, and even American citizens, resulting in the deaths of targets and civilians alike.
That’s all to say that President Trump’s illegal use of drone strikes in foreign nations is far from a new tactic. In fact, an inaccurate drone strike in September 2019 killed thirty Afghani farmers, yet the outrage from members of the US Congress was nowhere to be found. More importantly, there are clear actions that Congress could take to prevent future US presidents from abusing their powers that would be much more effective than an outraged statement or MSNBC interview.
Shortly after the killing of Soleimani, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien cited the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as legal justification for the strike. The AUMF was originally passed to authorize force against Saddam Hussein’s regime, and over seventeen years later still remains available for presidents to justify military action in Iraq. President Obama himself utilized the 2002 AUMF to authorize military actions against ISIS in Iraq during his second term.
During the drafting of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Democratic representative Barbara Lee introduced an amendment to repeal the 2002 AUMF. Although this amendment was stripped out by Republican members in the Senate, the NDAA still passed the House with ease. While Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made a habit of opposing President Trump with performative, meaningless acts while on camera, when the Democratic Party is presented with an actual chance to oppose President Trump’s agenda, they simply fold like a house of cards. The 2020 NDAA, which failed to include the 2002 AUMF repeal and also authorized a $20 billion increase in defense spending, passed the House with a vote of 377-48 and the Senate with a vote of 86-8, highlighting the lack of urgency and emphasis the Democratic Party placed on attempting to prevent President Trump’s ability to wage wars without congressional approval.
While the House and Senate passing separate bills to prevent spending funds on military acts against Iran without congressional approval is certainly a promising development, these acts are too little too late. Instead of utilizing the leverage any opposition party wields when forming a national budget, the leaders of the Democratic Party waited until they were forced to act by public opinion. If these bills are indeed passed by both chambers, President Trump is expected to veto them, rendering their passing as merely symbolic.
Narrowing the ability of the executive branch to wage unauthorized wars must be a top priority if Congress is truly serious about ending the United States’ forever wars. President Trump’s assassination of Soleimani, a top-level official in a sovereign, foreign government, at a major airport of one of America’s nominal allies, is just the logical progression of decades of Congress relinquishing their constitutionally mandated powers to hold the executive branch in check. Until leadership in Congress begins to take these matters seriously, the best strategy is to ignore their statements of outrage and focus on their tangible actions, or lack thereof.