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12 years after combat operations ceased, U.S Senate debates ending Iraq War

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly 20 years after the first bombs dropped on Baghdad, the Senate is on track to repeal the authorization for the use of military force that was used to justify the war in Iraq. Here's Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: Passing this AUMF is a necessary step of putting these bitter conflicts squarely behind us.

CHANG: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis is covering this debate and joins us from Capitol Hill. Hey, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So let me ask you. U.S. combat operations against Iraq officially ended in 2011 under President Obama, right? Like, what took Congress so long to take this step to formally end the war?

DAVIS: Virginia Senator Tim Kaine - he's a Democrat. He's been working on this repeal effort for years with Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana. And he said, essentially, there was disinterest from the Obama administration and outright opposition to it from the Trump administration to repeal the AUMF. But President Biden has indicated he supports it, and he'll sign it if it reaches his desk. It has a supermajority of support in the Senate, so the political stars have finally aligned behind it. I should note this legislation also repeals the 1991 AUMF that authorized the Gulf War under former President George H.W. Bush. And I think it's important to understand that this action would have no impact on any ongoing military operations. It's a bit of a philosophical debate here. Congress is making a move to claw back its traditional constitutional war power authorities, which is a power that has sort of slowly shifted towards the executive branch over the past several decades and especially in the post-9/11 era.

CHANG: Well, on that note, I mean, isn't there another military force authorization that's still on the books? This one became law after September 11...

DAVIS: Yeah.

CHANG: ...2001, and it's been used by U.S. presidents to justify counterterrorism operations in, like, multiple countries. Is there any consideration in Congress to reexamine that authority?

DAVIS: In this debate, there have been two amendments to try and get at this question, but both were rejected. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, introduced an amendment that would sunset the 2001 AUMF in six months. That would give Congress time to sort of debate whether they wanted to update it or rewrite it. Ninety or - excuse me - 86 senators voted against that. Another amendment by Republican Utah Senator Mike Lee would require all AUMFs to expire every two years, so every new Congress would have to decide to whether they wanted to continue those war powers - also rejected by 76 senators. I think the bottom line I draw from that is, you know, that the Senate is still overwhelmingly comfortable with keeping that authority in place not just for this president but for any president.

CHANG: Right. You mentioned the debate is largely philosophical. I'm curious. Was there any reflection or regret among lawmakers about the impact the war in Iraq had on this country?

DAVIS: You know, somewhat that - it has been striking to me that the tone of the debate has been very forward-looking and almost sort of positive. You know, Kaine made the point that Iraq is no longer an adversary to the U.S. They are now, in his words, a strategic partner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM KAINE: When the fighting is done and it's declared over, we can find paths forward to friendship and diplomacy and commerce and trade - cultural exchange. And that's a good thing about our country.

DAVIS: But, Ailsa, the literal cost of the Iraq war and all of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and beyond have been really staggering, especially if you put it in the context of the debate we're having today about the debt and the deficit. Brown University runs something called the Costs of War Project, and they estimate 20 years of wars has cost about $8 trillion. About a quarter of that is Iraq alone. Practically all of this spending was off-book. It wasn't paid for by Congress, so a significant chunk of the $32 trillion debt we have today is those military and war costs.

CHANG: That is NPR political correspondent Susan Davis. Thank you so much, Sue.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "GUNSHOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.