Joint Resolution
Authorizing the Use of Military Force
Against Iraq

Friends Committee on National Legislation

Washington Newsletter, October 2002


On October 10, the House and Senate passed identical resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq, H.J. Res. 114/S.J. Res. 45. The final vote in the House was 296-133 for the resolution, and 77-23 in favor in the Senate. The joint resolution provides broad authorization for the President to wage unilateral, preemptive war against Iraq at his discretion. Although the resolution passed both houses by significant margins, the opposition vote was notably larger than expected. Many members who voted for the resolution also spoke out on the floor during debate expressing strong support for resuming UN weapons inspections and deep concerns over the costs and consequences of a possible unilateral, preemptive war.

The first two pages of the resolution review the evidence and relative authorities upon which the authorization rests. The final three sections lay out the conditions of authorization and reporting requirements. The operative sections of the resolution cover three main areas.

* Support for efforts through the UN. The resolution states congressional support for efforts by the President to work through the United Nations Security Council to enforce resolutions related to Iraq. However, the joint resolution is not binding in this regard and does not compel the President to work with the UN.

*Authorization for Use of Unilateral Force. The main operative portion of the resolution reads:

The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to 1.) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and 2.) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq.

Within 48 hours of U.S. military action against Iraq, the President is required to report to the leadership of Congress that diplomatic or other peaceful means are no longer adequate and that U.S. military action against Iraq will not impede the war on terror. The resolution does not provide any standards by which the President should make these determinations or any mechanism through which the Congress could challenge the President's determinations. The resolution also does not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in a U.S. attack against Iraq.

* Reporting to Congress The joint resolution requires that the President report to Congress at least once every 60 days on actions taken under the authorization of force. Reports should include information on any use of force employed against Iraq as well as "the status of planning for efforts that are expected to be required after such actions" (i.e., planning for post-war operations in Iraq). The resolution does not include active congressional oversight beyond this reporting process for U.S. military action against Iraq.


Congress's joint resolution does demonstrate modification and some limitation of the White House's original discussion draft. However, the joint resolution remains a near-blanket authorization for unilateral, preemptive war, to be undertaken at the President's discretion. It also suggests a number of troubling questions.

* What are U.S. obligations as a member of the UN? The UN Security Council-not the U.S.- is responsible for enforcing UN Security Council resolutions. Although the congressional resolution supports efforts to work cooperatively with the UN, ultimately it leaves the enforcement of Security Council resolutions in the hands of the President, usurping the UN role.

* Is preemptive, unilateral attack against a "continuing threat" legal under international law? Under the UN Charter, attacks by individual states against other nations are justified only in response to an actual attack or in cases of imminent threat of attack. The congressional resolution defines the threat posed by Iraq as a "continuing threat" and authorizes preemptive, unilateral U.S. military action. Will this resolution set a new precedent for preemptive attack by other nations against perceived threats?

* How will the President determine when diplomatic and other peaceful means have failed? The international community strongly supports a resumption and completion of UN weapons inspections. Weapons inspectors are ready to return to Iraq, and Iraq has signaled its willingness to admit them to all sites covered by UN Security Council resolutions. Will the President allow a reasonable time for UN weapons inspections and disarmament efforts to be carried out successfully before pursuing other actions? The UN Security Council-not the President of the U.S.-should determine when inspections and other peaceful, diplomatic efforts have failed.

* Should there be limits on what constitutes the "necessary and appropriate" use of force? The resolution does not rule out the possible use of nuclear weapons.

* How would a massive, preemptive, unilateral U.S. assault on Iraq defend U.S. national security or enforce UN Security Council resolutions? What is the immediate threat that Iraq poses to U.S. national security? If it is a threat of weapons of mass destruction and possible support for terrorism, how will initiating a war that could lead to the use of chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons and that might sow more seeds of anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East help protect national security? Moreover, once a war is underway, it will be impossible to enforce UN Security Council resolutions which call for inspections to verify and destroy weapons of mass destruction.

* How long will this authorization remain in effect? There is no date of expiration for the authorization of force, and the resolution does not address the possibility of long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq.

* Has Congress surrendered its constitutional responsibilities for overseeing U.S. foreign and military policies? Aside from minimal reporting requirements, the resolution does not provide an active oversight role for Congress in a U.S. war against Iraq. The potential costs of such a war- financial, humanitarian, and political-should demand greater congressional caution and oversight than the resolution provides.

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