The Trump administration has also used the 2001 AUMF to defend military actions with increasingly nebulous justification. After the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians in 2017, Trump ordered air strikes against the government forces. Though Syria was not technically part of the original scope of the 2001 AUMF, Paul D. Ryan, then the speaker of the House of Representatives, said the president “has the authority to attack under the existing AUMF.” However, the administration itself did not elaborate why, precisely. This was seen as the latest in a string of isolated actions undertaken by presidents, with no backing from Congress or the United Nations, covered—however tenuously—by the AUMF.
IS THE 2001 AUMF HERE TO STAY?
In 2015, Obama pressured Congress to pass a new AUMF that would more specifically cover action against the Islamic State, but lawmakers failed to agree on the scope of any new authorization law. In 2018, a group of senators did introduce draft language for a new AUMF, but it did not impose a time limit or create other significant restrictions . It stalled in the Senate, regardless.
For now, the 2001 AUMF remains operational. In part, the lawmakers who drew up the original text are responsible for its longevity: they did not include any details on how to review the law to make changes or how to terminate it when the mission is complete.
But it’s not just the text of the law that’s broad—it’s also the concept the 2001 AUMF is trying to counteract. While past force authorizations did not always include timing restrictions, they would implicitly end when the specified enemy was defeated. But terrorism is not a specific enemy. So how can the U.S. government know when terrorism has been defeated?
The 2001 AUMF is unique in that it authorizes the use of force against not only other countries but also unspecified organizations and individuals connected to international terrorism. It is therefore difficult to determine whether the United States has finally achieved the goal for which military force was originally authorized—or whether the U.S. government has overreached in its effort to prevent future attacks.