On Monday, in one of his last acts as acting Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan announced the United States would send an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East. They will join the roughly 1,500 American troops already there— plus an aircraft carrier strike group, Patriot missile batteries, and bombers— to counter what the Trump administration sees as a threat from Iran. It is the latest development in a tit-for-tat escalation between the two countries, which some fear may lead to war. And Congress— nominally, an important player in the use of military force— might not be involved.
The Trump administration is responding to two separate attacks, including one last week, on multiple oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz it blames on Iran. Tehran has denied any involvement. However, officials within the administration have been attempting to build a case for some kind of military intervention for some time. In April, the administration labeled Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. Also that month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a link existed between the Islamic Republic and al-Qaeda. “They have hosted al-Qaeda,” Pompeo said. “They have permitted al-Qaeda to transit their country.” That is, as they say, huge, if true.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). The resolution, raced through Congress with only one dissenting vote, permits the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” That nearly-twenty year-old law is still on the books. Thus, Sec. Pompeo, and others, may attempt to argue that war with Iran is already authorized by law.
That was the indication an unlikely pair of lawmakers— Trump ally, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), and former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI)— gave after a closed-door meeting with the Secretary two weeks ago. “The notion that the administration has never maintained that there are elements of the 2001 AUMF that would authorize their hostilities toward Iran,” Gaetz said, “is not consistent with my understanding of what they said to us.” Added Slotkin, “we were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran.” That might be a hard sell to the public. Even fifteen years later, memories of the Bush administration’s lead-up to war with Iraq are still fresh.
With that in mind, there has been a growing movement, on both the left and the right, to repeal the AUMF, and take the possibility of undeclared, unauthorized war with Iran— or any other country— off the table. A small number of members have been moving, slowly, and quietly, to do just this. In a major speech on his foreign policy goals last week, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg became the first Democratic presidential candidate to call for its repeal and replacement.
The growing tensions between the United States and Iran itself reflects internal conflict within the Trump administration. Trump’s run to the Republican nomination, and the White House itself, was powered in no small part by disaffected nationalists tired of endless wars. A key element of his “America First” slogan and agenda was keeping the country out of future foreign conflicts. Yet, he also brought on a cadre of traditional conservative foreign policy hawks, including Pompeo, and especially John Bolton, who left war with Iran on his to-do list from the Bush administration. For the moment, it seems, the only person standing between Trump and war is Trump.