WASHINGTON ― U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Tuesday the Biden administration supports repeal of the war authorization Congress provided in 2002 to invade Iraq, teeing up action in the Senate on Wednesday.
Sherman spoke at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, where top lawyers for the Pentagon and State Department said repeal would not affect ongoing military operations or the ability to protect U.S. troops in Iraq.
“I want to state clearly that the Biden-Harris administration believes the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq has outlived its usefulness and should be repealed,” Sherman said.
“For the State Department, repealing the 2002 AUMF would not affect our diplomatic initiatives, and the administration has made clear that we have no ongoing military activities that rely solely on the 2002 AUMF,” she added.
The administration also supports eventual repeal of the 2001 AUMF, which authorizes war in Afghanistan and undergirds other U.S. counter-terror operations. It and the 2002 AUMF should be replaced by “clear, narrow and specific frameworks,” Sherman said.
Some Republicans have said they’re worried repealing the 2002 AUMF would embolden Iran and undermine counter-terror operations. They called for the hearing ahead of the panel’s consideration on Wednesday of a bill from Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., to repeal the 2002 and 1991 war authorizations.
After many efforts to repeal the post-9/11 authorizations of the use of military force, the action marks some of the most significant progress in years. President joe Biden’s support for repeal is likely to galvanize Democrats, who are expected to face opposition from most, but not all Republicans.
The House voted to terminate the 2002 AUMF, 268-161, on June 17, with 49 Republicans voting to repeal.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, argued repealing the 2002 could be read as a “sign of weakness” toward Iran. He pointed to the 2002 authorization as a basis for President Trump’s fatal airstrike against Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020, which he said sent an appropriately strong message to Tehran.
“Coupled with troop reductions across the Middle East, I’m concerned that the repeal of the 2002 AUMF only adds to the wrong message the administration, and I think all of us, are already sending to Iran, our allies, and the region,” Risch said.
Officials said Tuesday that the Trump administration only used the 2002 AUMF as a reinforcing authority in the Soleimani strike and used Article II of the Constitution, which allows for protecting American troops, as its primary authority. In February and June, they noted, Biden invoked this authority, rather than the 2002 AUMF, when he conducted strikes in Syria and Iraq at sites used by Iranian-backed militia groups.
“President Biden did not need the 2002 AUMF to protect American interests in June, and our current assessment is that we will not need the 2002 AUMF in the foreseeable future,” Sherman said. “If we do need additional authorities, we will not hesitate to seek those authorities.”
Pentagon General Counsel Caroline Krass said the repeal would not affect the military campaign against the Islamic State and other terror groups. It also would not impede the U.S. military’s ability to respond to other significant threats from Iranian-backed militias, she said.
Further, the 2002 authorization isn’t necessary for detentions at Guantanamo Bay or of Islamic State members abroad, a top attorney at the State Department, Richard Visek, told the panel. Officials said the 2001 authorization has been used in the counter-ISIS fight.
Still, some Republicans, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, are leery of repeal without a replacement, after a track record of failed efforts, including in 2015, despite President Barack Obama’s support, and in 2018, despite the backing of then-SFRC Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
“I’m concerned that the prospect of this body ever approving an AUMF to deal with the ongoing threat represented by ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other like groups would never pass this body,” Romney said. “The idea that we’re going to come up with some new AUMFs is just not realistic.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.