Remarks on Iran War Powers Resolution

February 12, 2020

Mr. President,

I rise today with my colleague, Senator Kaine, to support the resolution before us, which would prohibit the President from conducting offensive military strikes against Iran, unless and until Congress explicitly authorizes it.

This is how security policy in our republic is supposed to be made: Congress authorizes the use of military force, and the president – as commander in chief – directs the military to complete the missions.

This arrangement gives the American people the best of both worlds – a deliberative, representative legislature to declare war, and a single, decisive commander-in-chief to lead the troops.

Unfortunately, Congress has not held up our end of this responsibility. Our system of checks and balances, while beneficial to the American people, imposes rigor and accountability on Congress, which its members prefer to shirk when we can.

This trend has gained momentum for decades under presidents, Houses, and Senates of both parties. And now – two decades into multiple wars without clear missions or paths to victory – it is time for Congress to reassert, on behalf of our constituents, our vital constitutional role in American war-making.

Before addressing the merits of this particular resolution, let me first dispel two mistaken assumptions being made about it.

First, it is not about defying President Trump. The resolution makes no mention of him. Indeed, on this issue, Donald Trump is the most restrained and constitution-minded commander-in-chief we have had in decades. He is exactly the kind of partner Congress needs in the White House to get the Constitution’s war-making process back on the rails.

Second, neither is it about condemning the strike against Qasem Soleimani last month.

After all, the strike against Soleimani worked. He was an enemy of the United States, with the blood of hundreds of Americans – and thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and even other Iranians – on his hands. Everything we know about him and his work confirms he was planning to kill again, and soon.

Rather, what this resolution is about is Congress reclaiming its rightful powers to restore accountability and consensus to this most grave of all policy decisions.

I understand why members of Congress are okay with pretending to be pundits on national security – cheering the troops when things go well, and attacking the president when they don’t. But we’re not political pundits on cable news: we have a job we took an oath to do.

The Founders could not have been clearer about this, especially the greatest Founder of them all.

When the Miami and Wabash Indians attacked Americans north of the Ohio River between 1791 and 1794, President George Washington confined his military operations to only defensive measures.

“The Constitution,” Washington wrote, “vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”

This was not humility or modesty. It was duty.

Under the Constitution, whose drafting he oversaw as President of the Constitutional Convention, and to which he swore his oath of office, the power to direct war resided with him as commander-in-chief. But the power to declare war resided exclusively with Congress.

To his credit, President Trump has largely followed this standard, and has countered recent Iranian aggression primarily through economic sanctions. They are working, and it appears that Iran is standing down.

Tehran has already had to cut back support for international terrorist organizations and its nuclear program; and its oil exports are plummeting.

Its economy has been crippled, contracting by almost 10%… and the Iranian people know it is the fault of their own leaders.

Tens of thousands of Iranian protestors have taken to the streets to protest their own government, even knowing that such action may lead them to injury, imprisonment, or death.

Even the New York Times has admitted that the Iranian regime is losing the will to confront the United States.

There may be a pathway to peace and prosperity for the Iranian people through sanctions relief and trade – if the Iranian government is willing to cease its support for radical Islamic militant organizations, and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ICBMs.

Until then, the U.S. – under President Trump’s leadership – will maintain maximum pressure through sanctions, and defend the U.S. from any further attacks.

I stand firmly behind President Trump in this course of action. And, like President Trump, I believe we ought to avoid war if we can.

After nearly two decades of military entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan – much of which was fostered by DoD bureaucrats deceiving Congress and the American people, as we have recently learned – the last thing we need is another protracted conflict in the Middle East.

War with Iran is currently neither warranted nor consistent with our strategic interests.

To be clear, under this resolution, the president would retain all his authority as Commander-in-Chief to take defensive measures against active threats to U.S. persons, assets, and the homeland – including our armed forces stationed abroad, and our diplomats in U.S. embassies – even without an AUMF.

However, even when defensive measures are conducted, the administration must share the justifying evidence with Congress.

As a separate branch of government – the branch with the constitutional prerogative over the power to declare war – we are not required to simply accept an administration’s talking points as a matter of faith, especially after almost two decades of deception in Afghanistan.

Intelligence-sharing ensures that Congress can appropriately determine whether it should, or should not, provide the administration with further authority to conduct offensive military force.

The intelligence so-far shared with Congress on recent actions taken against Iran has fallen short.

But my main concern with the briefing that I called one of the “worst” I’d ever witnessed was that we were given no indication whatsoever that any ongoing offensive action against Iran would occur with consultation and authorization from Congress.

Worst of all, it was suggested that engaging in public debate and deliberation about further military action in Iran – in other words, what we are doing here right now –– would empower our enemies and undermine the morale of our men and women overseas.

Mr. President, this is as false as it is insulting to the American people; and contrary to our form of government.

Constitutionally separated powers, exercised with accountability to the people via checks and balances, are precisely what makes the United States strong.

Bowing to the politicians’ cowardly impulse to avoid responsibility and subvert our constitutional duty – that is what empowers our enemies and undermines the morale of our nation.

Whether the United States sends our young men and women into harm’s way again is on us: not to cheer or jeer, but to decide.

And so of course that decision ought to be made at the end of a very public debate that requires not only our attention, but our contributions; and ultimately, our assent.

For too long, Congress has shrunk from this constitutional responsibility for its own narrow, selfish, political interests.

But by taking itself out of the process of debating and declaring war, Congress has taken the American people out of the process. And that, Mr. President, is unacceptable.

It’s time to turn the page.

Osama bin Laden is dead. So are the 9/11 terrorists.

Soleimani is dead. Iran is weakened and isolated.

Saddam Hussein is dead and has been out of power for a generation, and Iraq is a sovereign nation that can – and should – dictate its own course.

We now face new challenges, and our priorities have rightfully changed.

While this resolution speaks only to offensive action against Iran, I believe it is time to repeal the 2002 AUMF and bring our troops in Iraq home.

That is a question that we can and should address in this body.

But in the meantime, we as a body – and as a nation – should at least agree that there is no justification for further military action in Iran in the absence of a new AUMF or declaration of war by Congress.

This resolution is consistent with the president’s desire to keep us out of excessive, unnecessary wars.

It is consistent with the vision of our Founding Fathers, who sought to make it harder to enter into war by requiring express consent from a bicameral legislature.

And it is consistent with the conviction that the American people – whose sons and daughters lay down their lives to defend us – should get a say in the matter.

I yield the floor.