A diverse coalition of two dozen organizations on Tuesday warned that President Joe Biden's "patently unauthorized, illegal, and unconstitutional" airstrikes last month on facilities in Syria that his administration said belonged to Iran-backed militia groups could set a "deeply troubling" and "dangerous" precedent—and urged Congress to respond with a War Powers Resolution.
"The strike's lack of congressional approval, and the administration's erroneous justification, set a dangerous precedent that risks embroiling us in more endless war."
—Cavan Kharrazian, Demand Progress
Emphasizing that the strikes were not authorized by Congress and Biden didn't use any of the controversial Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) in his justification for the bombing, the groups' letter (pdf) urges lawmakers "to move swiftly to defend the Constitution and Congress's exclusive authority, under Article I, to declare war and authorize the offensive use of military force."
Rather than citing AUMFs that some lawmakers are trying to end, "the administration instead claims that Article II of the Constitution alone permits the president to sidestep congressional authorization and unilaterally introduce the U.S. military into hostilities," notes the letter. "The administration asserts that the strikes constituted 'self-defense' that is permissible under his 'authority to conduct United States foreign relations and as commander in chief and chief executive.'"
The letter—signed by a variety of groups including CodePink, Demand Progress, Just Foreign Policy, and Peace Action—pushes back against the administration's position:
This legal justification asserted by the administration is entirely without merit. While the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 do include narrow exceptions that allow the president to engage in military actions for self-defense and to repel sudden attacks, the administration's own claims prove that this military action did not meet this high bar.
Article II of the U.S. Constitution is widely interpreted to permit the president to act unilaterally in response to imminent threats to the nation, and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 permits action without Congress in the event of a "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." But both of these exceptions apply only to a narrow set of situations where the imminent and extreme nature of the threat makes it impractical or impossible to convene Congress in a timely fashion that would enable the necessary defensive actions. That the strikes were planned over a period of several days and executed 10 days after the Erbil attack (with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reportedly assuring Biden that he "owned the clock" and could take his time to respond), demonstrate that there was ample time to permit Congress to exercise its duty to authorize military action.
While the administration presented the bombing as a response to rocket attacks on Iraqi bases that host U.S. troops, the letter says that "the ostensible defensive nature of the strikes is further belied by the fact that they appear to have resulted in a retaliatory strike against the U.S. and its partners at the Al-Asad air base in Iraq."
Make @POTUS seek authorization before launching lethal strikes like the ones in February.
— Demand Progress (@demandprogress) March 16, 2021
"If Congress doesn't act to rebuke and prohibit this illegal action," the letter warns, "this precedent could be cited to defend unauthorized military action essentially anywhere in the world, against nearly any group, and at virtually any time, as long as an administration declares that U.S. interests are threatened by the targeted group at some moment in the past or in the future."
"The administration's repeated declarations that it may respond at 'a place and time of our choosing' is a telling indication of the broad discretion the administration is claiming to engage in unauthorized military action, as well as justifying pre-planned, retaliatory, and unauthorized U.S. strikes to 'de-escalate the overall situation,'" adds the letter.
Just Foreign Policy executive director Erik Sperling said that "this letter is a sign that members of Congress who fight to defend their war powers have a right-left coalition standing behind them. Repealing the two-decade-old authorizations for military force is important, but the claim that the constitution alone allows the president to unilaterally strike any group, anywhere, could greatly limit the scope of those efforts."
Though the AUMFs aren't the focus of the letter, given that Biden bypassed them, some of the groups signed on to it also supported a pair of letters sent to Congress and the president before the strikes in Syria that called for an end to "forever wars" as well as the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs.
"This letter is a sign that members of Congress who fight to defend their war powers have a right-left coalition standing behind them."
—Erik Sperling, Just Foreign Policy
Earlier this month, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) reintroduced a resolution to repeal the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs, a measure praised by some peace activists even though it notably leaves out the 2001 AUMF that Congress passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Shortly after that move, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden wants to ensure that the AUMFs "currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars."
Though campaigners welcomed that sentiment, they made clear that it's not enough.
"The Biden administration's February 25 bombing in Syria conforms neither with the Constitution nor the War Powers Act of 1973," said Cavan Kharrazian, a foreign policy campaigner at Demand Progress. "The strike's lack of congressional approval, and the administration's erroneous justification, set a dangerous precedent that risks embroiling us in more endless war."
"While current efforts to repeal and replace old authorizations of military force are important, those authorizations were not cited to justify the February strike, and their repeal would not entail holding the president accountable for this specific unconstitutional action," Kharrazian added. "Congress must immediately respond to this unauthorized attack by passing a War Powers Resolution—the fastest and most powerful tool that Congress has at its disposal to assert its jurisdiction over war-making."