Biden, Iraq and an old law

Repealing authorisation used to justify the Iraq invasion should not become an excuse for American disengagement
US Air Force mechanics prepare to load an F-16 fighter jet at an airbase in Ben Guerir,  about 58 kilometres north of Marrakesh, during the "African Lion" military exercise on June 14, 2021.   / AFP / FADEL SENNA

In his book, And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East, American journalist Richard Engel likened his country's actions in the early days of Syria's civil war to those of a boat steering towards a drowning man and "dangling a lifejacket", only to turn away at the last moment. Engel's criticism reflects mounting concern over a pattern of American decision-making, or lack of, during critical moments of instability in the Middle East in recent years.

The latest came yesterday, when US President Joe Biden's administration endorsed a largely symbolic, but nonetheless significant, proposal to repeal the open-ended congressional permission that allowed former president George W Bush to launch the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq's former president.

The proposal was tabled in Congress by Barbara Lee, a Democratic congresswoman in California. Under US law, only Congress may authorise a war. The authorisations granted for the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, however, lacked any expiration date, effectively allowing US presidents to continue any overseas military operations that might be linked to their broader aims, however tangentially. Consequently, a war to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq has become a nearly two-decade intervention to stabilise Iraq.

A worker makes a hookah, traditionally water-pipe made out of wood, in his workshop in Kerbala, Iraq, June 11, 2021. Picture taken June 11, 2021. REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa al-Deen
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Debate on the efficacy of intervention should not justify the US abandoning the region

Although Iraq's journey to a stable future still has a long way to go, the US presence in the country has since proven to be an important pillar of support for Baghdad's fledgling institutions. The same can be said in Afghanistan.

But much has changed in America since the "forever wars" began. Mr Biden is in the process of extricating the US from both Iraq and Afghanistan, something his two predecessors also endorsed. Specifically, he aims to remove all US forces from Afghan soil by September. A similar wind-down is underway in Iraq, where a small number of American troops are expected to step away from fighting and focus their efforts on training Iraq's security forces.

Amid these major strategic decisions, Mr Biden's endorsement of Ms Lee's effort to repeal the Iraq war authorisation appears to be largely symbolic. But the enthusiasm with which he has done it shows how much of a vote-winner the US withdrawal from the region has become.

And while the war authorisation's repeal would be legally significant in that it would stop Mr Biden or any successor from being able use it as a basis for further military action, history shows that if at some point the US wants to intervene militarily somewhere, it will find a way to do so. When Mr Biden ordered strikes on Syrian targets this February, he referred not to the legislation in question, but to Article 2 of the US Constitution, which gives him the right to use force to defend American troops.

In today's divided America, the unpopularity of foreign interventions is one of the only areas of bipartisan consensus left. More debate on the morality and efficacy of intervention among the public and policymakers is a good thing. But it should not be mistaken for or used to justify an abdication of America's role in supporting a secure and stable Middle East. The region is too consequential for such an outcome.