The Senate side of the United States Capitol in Washington, DC. Photo: Wikipedia

On March 29, the US Senate voted to repeal two Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs), one passed in 1991 and another in 2002. The repeal now goes to the House of Representatives. 

But those Authorizations are irrelevant to the present; they apply only to the Iraq war. A third AUMF, passed in 2001, was left untouched. And that AUMF is the only one that has a bearing on the present moment, because it provides legal cover for the many US military operations, open and secret, around the world.

The 1991 and 2002 AUMFs gave congressional approval for two wars on Iraq, known respectively as Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. After the hundreds of thousands left dead and the millions displaced as a result of the US wars on Iraq, the Senate repeal should be filed under “Too little, too late. But good PR.”

2001 authorization of secret wars left untouched

The AUMF of 2001, the one untouched by the Senate, is an entirely different matter. Its content and use are explained in a nutshell here:

“The authorization granted the president the authority to use all ‘necessary and appropriate force’ against those whom he determined ‘planned, authorized, committed or aided’ the September 11 [2001] attacks, or who harbored said persons or groups…. 

“Since 2001, US presidents have interpreted their authority under the AUMF to extend beyond al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan to apply to numerous other groups as well as other geographic locales.….

“Today, the full list of actors the US military is fighting or believes itself authorized to fight under the 2001 AUMF is classified and therefore a secret unknown to the American public

“The AUMF has also been cited by a wide variety of US officials as justification for continuing US military actions all over the world [emphasis mine]…. 

“According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, published May 11, 2016, at that time the 2001 AUMF had been cited 37 times in connection with actions in 14 countries and on the high seas. The report stated … ‘Of the 37 occurrences, 18 were made during the [George W] Bush administration, and 19 have been made during the [Barack] Obama administration.’ 

“The countries that were mentioned in the report included Afghanistan, Cuba (Guantanamo Bay), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.” 

What does this mean for the present? Here is what Just Security tells us:

“As General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently (June 2021) testified before the House Armed Services Committee (here at 3:10:45), no current US military operations depend on the 2002 AUMF and thus its repeal would not affect the United States’ ongoing wars. Repeal of the 2002 AUMF costs the Biden administration little or nothing.

“Where the rubber meets the road on AUMF reform is the 2001 AUMF, the principal statutory authority for US military operations in the war on terror. As General Milley explained, the ‘2001 AUMF is the one we need to hang on to … it is the critical one for us to continue operations [emphasis mine].”

But as noted above, those “operations” which take place “all over the world” are a secret, unknown to the American people and the world.  

The New York Times was optimistic in its reportage of the Senate action, noting that the repeal might be a stepping stone to dealing with the 2001 AUMF. However, in this case the word the Times used was not “repeal” but “replace.” 

(Obama had once spoken of the need to “refine” it.) General Milley must have heaved a sigh of relief as he read those carefully chosen words. He will be able to “continue operations” well into the future.

Flashes of decency quickly extinguished

There were, however, flashes of relevance to the current wars in the debate over the Senate repeal. First was Rand Paul’s Resolution to repeal the 2001 AUMF along with the other two. That failed by a vote of 9 to 86, with four Republicans, four Democrats and one Independent voting yes. 

Second was an amendment advanced by Republican Senator Josh Hawley that would create a special watchdog over the $113 billion that have gone to President Joe Biden’s Ukrainian proxy war to cripple Russia. But that bright spot was also quickly snuffed out by a vote of 68-26. Only two Democrats, Jon Tester of Montana and Jon Osoff of Georgia, and one Independent, Kristin Sinema of Arizona, voted for it.  

The Times also noted, “Over the past few years, there has also been a pronounced generational shift in Congress and in both parties, where anti-war voices on the left have aligned with ‘America First’ enthusiasts on the right who resist entangling the United States in foreign conflicts.” 

That is certainly good news for those who would like to see the survival of humanity, but unfortunately this new breed has not yet gathered sufficient strength to pass legislation like the proposals of Rand Paul or Josh Hawley.  

Vatican rescinds Doctrine of Discovery

All in all, these proceedings in the Senate bore an unseemly resemblance to another repeal a day later, this one in the Vatican. That day the Doctrine of Discovery was rescinded. You may not know what that Doctrine states, dear reader, but its spirit is alive and well today.  

The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal concept that was developed out of Papal Bulls in the 1400s that granted European Christian nations the right to conquer non-Christian lands and subjugate their inhabitants. By 1493 it had grown into an accepted European legal doctrine that “discovery” of a land by a European nation conferred ownership – even if the land had indigenous occupants.  

The Doctrine of Discovery provided a rationale for European colonialism and was introduced into US jurisprudence by Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. Marshall used the Doctrine in 1823 to justify the expropriation of American Indians’ lands. Needless to say, indigenous peoples in America and throughout the world find the Doctrine repulsive and have demanded that it be “rescinded” for a long time.

Today the Doctrine of Discovery has no force or relevance in the world of policy, and so it can be rescinded. File it under “Too little, too late. But great PR.” Just like the AUMFs of 1991 and 2002 – but unlike the AUMF of 2001, which allows General Milley’s operations to continue and is kept on the books.

In the long view, the Doctrine of Discovery is the “spiritual” forebear of the AUMFs. Its echo can be heard in the “Wolfowitz Doctrine” and in the bloody US drive for global hegemony from Ukraine to Taiwan.

This article appeared originally at

John Walsh

John V Walsh, until recently a professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, has written on issues of peace and health care for the San Francisco Chronicle, EastBayTimes/San Jose Mercury News, Asia Times, LA Progressive,, CounterPunch and others.