Americans Are Starting to Favor a Major Break With the DC Foreign Policy Consensus


A new poll shows that American voters favor a series of policies which, if enacted, would radically reshape U.S. foreign policy around the world–especially when it comes to the use of military force.

The poll, from progressive group Data for Progress and YouGov, shows that nearly half of Americans voters want to change the Authorization of Use of Military Force, Congress’s 2001 decision to authorize the president to use military force against those responsible for the September 11 attacks. Only 33 percent want to keep it in place.

It also shows that 62 percent of American voters strongly or somewhat support reducing U.S. aid to alleged human rights abusers, and that 52 percent of voters support or strongly support ending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which has used U.S. weapons and support to inflict thousands of civilian casualties in Yemen.

Taken together, the polls represent a disconnect between public opinion and Washington on several core issues of U.S. foreign policy, and the AUMF in particular. The poll asked specific questions about changing the 2001 AUMF, ending Saudi Arms deals, and general support for regimes accused of human rights violations.

The poll, which was provided to Splinter by DFP, surveyed 1,380 American registered voters online and was weighed to be representative of age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, region, and 2016 voting choice.

In the nearly 18 years since it was passed, the 2001 AUMF has has been used to justify extrajudicial killings, military operations, and widespread detentions in over a dozen countries by three successive presidents seeking to wield force outside the purview of congressional oversight. Congress’s failure to check this power has limited the American people’s ability to influence how our country exercises its enormous capacity for violence. From the looks of the DFP poll, public opinion is starting to see this system for what it is.

According to congressional research ordered in 2013 by California Rep. Barbara Lee, the AUMF has been applied at least 37 times in unclassified reports, and potentially in more uses that the government has not acknowledged. Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 law, passed a week after 9/11, arguing that it gave the executive branch a “blank check” to “endless war.” Since then, she has fought a lonely and largely fruitless battle to repeal the law, most recently losing a vote to add an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in 2016. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul tried to pass a similar bill in 2017; it failed in the Senate.

“The 2001 AUMF has been cited as authority by the government for the use of lethal force and unlawful detention, far beyond anything that Congress authorized specific to 9/11,” Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told Splinter in an interview. “It has dangerously been invoked as justification for killings, detention, surveillance and other rights abuses in multiple countries. And it is the building block for a failed forever war approach.”

Though Lee’s fight in Congress has largely lacked support, public opinion is beginning to change. The DFP poll found that only 33 percent of American voters wanted to keep the law in place, 49 percent wanted it changed, and 18 percent were on the fence.

“Public opinion is more broadly coming to recognize that forever wars in response to real and perceived threats are strategically, and from a rights perspective not the right answer,” Shamsi told Splinter. “We will not and cannot kill or detain our way to long-term peace.”

In the past few years, the U.S.’s involvement in Yemen has come under slightly more scrutiny, largely focused on America’s role in supporting Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in the country. In 2017, for example, the U.S. authorized the sale of $510 million worth of precision guided munitions, which a subsequent New York Times investigation found were used to very precisely strike civilian targets the Saudis were told to spare. Both the House and Senate have passed resolutions aiming to end U.S. support to Saudi Arabia, despite strong resistance from the Trump administration. The Data For Progress poll found that this point of view is largely supported, with 19 percent strongly supporting ending arms sales to the Saudis and 33 percent somewhat supporting, a total of 52 percent. Only 22 percent of Americans somewhat or strongly opposed ending arms sales to the Saudis.

The hope is that some of these priorities will make their way through to the next presidential administration. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been one of the primary sponsors of each of the Yemen bills that has gone through the Senate. The majority of 2020 frontrunners support repealing the 2001 AUMF, but as we’ve seen before, that promise is easier to make on the campaign trail than it is in the White House. As DefenseOne notes, President Barack Obama spoke out against the Bush administration’s consolidation of war powers in the executive branch in 2008, but while in office, his administration repeatedly used the 2001 AUMF to justify engagements in Libya, Syria and several other countries. Considering that the foreign policy sections of the past 2020 debates haven’t been great, it’d be a welcome change to hear what, if anything, the prospective candidates would do to relinquish control of America’s devastating military potential back to Congress.

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