The Iran War Powers Act, and what it (doesn’t) mean

Qasem Soleimani, Commander of Quds Forces during National AGIR commanders conference, from Wikipedia

There is much to-do about President Trump’s veto (that was not overridden) of the Iran war powers resolution. On its face, a bill that says President Trump can’t just declare war on Iran seems to be a good thing, given the crazy number of places we have committed our Armed Forces to so far. I was curious what the bill actually said, so I did a bit of digging. At first, it was difficult to get the right bill because there have been multiple bills introduced by various members trying to restrict war with Iran. The one that was recently vetoed was S.J. Res. 68. You can read the PDF version here.

It’s a pretty short bill, so let’s dive into it! We’ll skip the fancy header stuff and get into the meat of it:

Congress makes the following findings:
(1) Congress has the sole power to declare war under article I,
section 8, clause 11 of the United States Constitution.

Well, no issue there. In case you only read the amendments to the Constitution, this is squarely in Article I.

(2) The President has a constitutional responsibility to take actions to defend the United States, its territories, possessions, citizens, service members, and diplomats from attack.

Sounds about right.

(3) Congress has not yet declared war upon, nor enacted a specific statutory authorization for use of military force against, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack and the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 (Public Law 107-243; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) do not serve as a specific statutory authorization for the use of force against Iran.

Sure… but how does this apply if you’re a terrorist funded by Iran? Iran is running a proxy war against the United States, and the U.S. has responded in kind. Both nations are fighting each other in the shadows, but hesitating to attack each other directly, although there have been the occasional assassination attempt. Essentially, this says you can’t use these two pieces of legislation to justify war with Iran.

(4) The conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran constitutes, within the meaning of section 4(a) of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1543(a)), either hostilities or a situation where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances into which United States Armed Forces have been introduced.

That is correct, see the USC text here. Then again, you could say this applies every time we conduct a Freedom of Navigation transit. It’s pretty vague. A U.S. Carrier Strike Group would be always “equipped for combat,” so anytime it goes anywhere its meeting this criteria.

(5) Members of the United States Armed Forces and intelligence community, and all those involved in the planning of the January 2, 2020, strike on Qasem Soleimani, including President Donald J. Trump, should be commended for their efforts in a successful mission.

Yay, I guess? Did they just give a shout-out to the President? Who snuck that in?

Even Democrats give me credit!

(6) Section 5(c) of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1544(c)) states that “at any time that United States Armed Forces are engaged in hostilities outside the territory of the United States, its possessions and territories without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization, such forces shall be removed by the President if the Congress so directs”.

True, but missing a section. The previous portion, 5(b), allows the President to essentially deploy the military for up to 60 days before he has to remove them. Kind of important. Should read the whole text, available here.

(7) More than 100 members of the United States Armed Forces sustained traumatic brain injuries in the Iranian retaliatory attack on the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq despite initial reports that no casualties were sustained in the attack.

And initial reports are normally wrong, so the point here is what? Iran shot a bunch of missiles at us and nobody died? Some people get a Purple Heart and a VA disability bump? Sure, its just a statement of fact, but to what end?

I’m not downplaying the damage here, it sucks that people got injured. My bigger point is that it doesn’t matter to this bill in the slightest.

(8) Section 8(c) of the War Powers Resolution (50 U.S.C. 1547(c)) defines the introduction of the United States Armed Forces to include “the assignment of members of such armed forces to command, coordinate, participate in the movement of, or accompany the regular or irregular forces of any foreign country or government when such military forces are engaged, or there exists an imminent threat that such forces will become engaged in, hostilities”.

100% true.

(9) The United States Armed Forces have been introduced into hostilities, as defined by the War Powers Resolution, against Iran.

Introduced? Against Iran? Here’s where you can lawyer-away. The troops were in IRAQ. They were attacked in IRAQ. President Trump authorized a strike on General Soleimani in IRAQ. Not Iranian soil, Iraqi soil. He even notified the Iraqis. The troops in Iraq are in no way sufficient to invade Iran. We’re not even shooting across the border…General Soleimani was killed in Baghdad, which is over 200 km from the Iranian border.

Maybe I’m wrong, but this simply sentence seems like its reaching a bit. Troops that were already there (not introduced) and are helping Iraq (not fighting Iran) are somehow now engaged in hostilities against Iran? Please, if a lawyer wants to drop a comment to explain this, I’m all ears. I just don’t see it.

(10) The question of whether United States forces should be engaged in hostilities against Iran should be answered following a full briefing to Congress and the American public of the issues at stake, a public debate in Congress, and a congressional vote as contemplated by the Constitution.

Sure, couldn’t agree more. Congress hasn’t lost the ability to declare war or turn off the military funding tap, neither of which it has decided to do. And, to be fair, President Trump hasn’t put military forces in Iran, nor is he massing troops on the border to do so.

(11) Section 1013 of the Department of State Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1984 and 1985 (50 U.S.C. 1546a) provides that any joint resolution or bill to require the removal of United States Armed Forces engaged in hostilities without a declaration of war or specific statutory authorization shall be considered in accordance with the expedited procedures of section 601(b) of the International Security and Arms Export Control Act of 1976.

Yup, but again, the soldiers involved were all already in IRAQ, and there to help the Iraqi Army.

SEC. 2. TERMINATION OF THE USE OF UNITED STATES FORCES FOR HOSTILITIES AGAINST THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN.

(a) Termination.–Pursuant to section 1013 of the Department of State Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1984 and 1985 (50 U.S.C. 1546a),
and in accordance with the provisions of section 601(b) of the
International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976,
Congress hereby directs the President to terminate the use of United
States Armed Forces for hostilities against the Islamic Republic of
Iran or any part of its government or military, unless explicitly
authorized by a declaration of war or specific authorization for use of
military force against Iran.

OK. So, pray tell, what hostilities? Did we shoot missiles into Iran? Did we invade some piece of Iranian territory? I’d like to know.

(b) Rule of Construction.–Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the United States from defending itself from
imminent attack.

Well that’s good to know!

So I’m not seeing the big deal with this bill, besides that its a bunch of grandstanding. It’s a lot of fluff and it’s accusing the President of conducting operations against Iran, without saying WHAT operations he’s engaging in. It also is attempting to link soldiers that are already in IRAQ as somehow having something to do with IRAN. I get it, the countries are only one letter apart…but seriously.

How this piece of legislation feels

I’ve had a few people quote President Trump’s tweets about “raining fire down on Iran” if they attack our Navy vessels. OK, I’ll bite. For starters, imminent attack and self defense are still protected, so President Trump threatening to use them is a giant nothing-burger. Did he threaten to invade Qeshm Island? If so, I’d be all onboard saying that’s a really bad idea without a war declaration.

That’s not what is happening. Essentially, we have a President that is totally fine making bombastic claims when another country threatens him. It’s his personal style and likely part of his negotiating strategy. We can argue about whether this is effective, and I think there is plenty of room for debate on that. I personally think it isn’t always the best strategy to use with our allies, for example. I’m not the President, so I don’t get to make those choices, and for people that really don’t like that style, there is the voting box come November.

To accuse President Trump of engaging in hostile acts directly against Iran, but then not being able to name them, and trying to disguise it as an attempt to reign in a President that is trampling on Congressional rights is nothing more than stupid grand standing. We continue to be promised World War III with President Trump, and it continues to not happen.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

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