15 Years after 9/11, can we Recover our Republic?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Founding Fathers thought keeping a standing army was a danger to democracy. The great wars of the twentieth century appear to have imbued the United States with a permanent standing army, and this institution has been reinforced by the September 11 attacks. Or rather it has been reinforced by how Washington elites have decided to respond to those attacks. They have responded with lawlessness. If only we had treated al-Qaeda as the criminals they are instead of creating a ‘war on terror’ then we would have relied more on courts and due process and less on force majeure.

Perhaps the US military itself is not a danger to democracy, but that it is there, well-trained and well-equipped, creates a constant temptation for presidents to use it. And war presidents are imperial presidents, as we have seen with both Bush and Obama.

The pretext of national security born of wars has been fatal to our basic liberties. Both Bush and Obama sought to have their intelligence agencies carry out massive domestic surveillance and both have killed and buried the Fourth Amendment.

Alongside the standing army, however, is the post-9/11 legislation, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, bestowed on the president by Congress, which is still in force even though Usama Bin Laden is dead and his organization is a shadow of its former self.

Here is what the AUMF says:


(a) < > In General.–That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

As Mary Louise Kelley pointed out at NPR, the White House is using the AUMF to justify continued intervention in Libya against Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) there.

Since many of today’s ISIL fighters were born after 9/11, it is frankly ridiculous to derive Obama’s ability to make war on them from this vague text.

Like a standing army, a standing AUMF is a danger to democracy.

Obama’s wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., would not have been so easily pursued if he had had to go back to Congress in each case to get a specific authorization.

The way in which the National Security Agency used the Iraq War as a pretext for increasing its surveillance of ordinary Americans should be a cautionary tale. Likewise, Obama’s use of the fascist 1919 Espionage Act against whistleblowers would not have been so easy had we been at peace.

It is time to end the AUMF and reduce the presidency back to being a republican institution. Likewise other agencies of the executive need to be constrained by the constitution again, a task only Congress and the courts can undertake.

Making sure the Constitution and our rights are strong is the best way of honoring the victims of the 9/11 attacks.


Related video:

Open Road Films: “SNOWDEN – Official Trailer”

11 Responses

  1. Thank you for this presentation & analysis, Juan.

    As someone who’s been an activist about something (or many things) in every decade since the ’60’s, it’s all long term work.

    In America, everyone has an opinion on the ideal President and/or favorite politician/celebrity they would like to see as President.

    No one cares about state legislature races, hardly anyone cares about city?county council races.

    Change comes from working on the big ideals and also working as painstakingly as possible on the small details simultaneously, for as long as possible.

    And for what it’s worth, I have a “resume bullet” of having proposed and co-moderated a (very successful) workshop on “Avoiding Burnout in Political Work” at a big lefty gathering on the Left Coast back in the day.

  2. The US government does not have constitutional authority to engage in foreign wars, except under treaty. The Constitution states clearly that all federal powers not enumerated therein are reserved by the states and the people, and the only military powers are to repel invasions and suppress insurrections. The only exceptions are Letters of Marque (allowing arrest of persons elsewhere for crimes in the US) and Letters of Reprisal (authorizing attacks upon named armed entities, usually pirate ships). So foreign wars are not within the federal powers except by treaty.

    The AUMF is a Letter of Marque to arrest specific 9/11 attackers, and a vague Letter of Reprisal, sufficient for a limited expedition to attack the Bin Laden compound. It is not sufficient to attack Saudi Arabia as the source of the attackers, despite all of the evidence of state connections, because the US government has no such authority. It is not sufficient to invade Afghanistan simply because AlQaeda was there as well as in Pakistan which we could not invade because it is a nuclear power. It has no connection at all with Iraq, a war for which GW Bush & co should be tried by the ICJ at the Hague as war criminals.

    To enlist NATO as the treaty excuse to invade Afghanistan is to pretend that it was designed for long-distance counter-terror purposes. It was intended purely for mutual defense against major aggressions by nations. Its existence now is dangerous for the United States, because it is a temptation for the classic tyrants over demopcracy against whom Aristotle warned, who must create foreign enemies to demand domestic power as false protectors, and to accuse their opponents of disloyalty. It should be disbanded or strictly limited to repelling invasions, like the US federal powers.

    Terrorism at a long distance is ordinarily a small-scale operation, well suited to letters of marque and reprisal, with operations limited to the scale on which we were attacked, even when sourced by a large insurgency. If we suffered many attacks in the US, the question would be why we have large enemies far away if we are not attacking them. In the case of AlQaeda it was because the US had been engaged in unconstitutional secret wars. If the US had not engaged in unconstitutional secret political wars around the world, it would never have had a motive to push the definition of Letters of Reprisal to include entire nations far away, and US tyrants warmongers would not have had an excuse to abuse the NATO treaty.

    Secret political wars are the reason that we have lost America. To eliminate those we must eliminate large secret agencies, we must eliminate dominance of foreign policy by the executive branch by making constitutional checks and balances work properly, and we must eliminate the control of mass media and elections by economic concentrations.

  3. John Fullerton

    Dr. Cole’s question is not a rhetorical one. The coils of corporatism cinch more tightly round the earth. Wise men rue democracy

  4. professor cole,
    thank you. you have said all there is to say right here. the aumf is an obscenity.

    obama ran for president as the antiwar candidate. he has turned out to be anything but. progressives are asleep while he drops bombs all over the place. i myself was asleep for most of his presidency. it required the primaries of this past year and the obliteration of the large iraqi city of ramadi to wake me to the truth. obama is the trojan horse of the antiwar movement.

    on 9-11, i want to give thanks and respect to a true american hero, chelsea manning. manning is being tortured and abused in a military brig while serving a 35 year sentence for exposing just a few of the pentagon’s warcrimes. it is a national disgrace. manning must be freed.

    president obama has the power to undo this disgusting injustice. he could do it today to honor national heroes. but of course, he won’t.

  5. It has been long perceived that Rome’s move from a citizen to a standing army, initiated by Marius at the end of the 2nd century BC, marks the point from which the ancient republican democracy headed towards the empire, and your Founding Fathers were likely well grounded in Roman history and had good reason to seek to avoid that irreversible development.

    • Yes, they were so grounded in history, but also could not conceive of a population so readily deceived as to permit a large standing military force in time of peace.. From Federalist Papers no. 26:

      “An army, so large as seriously to menace those liberties, could only be formed by progressive augmentations; which would suppose, not merely a temporary combination between the legislature and the executive, but a continued conspiracy for a series of time. Is it probable that such a combination would exist at all?”

      “If such suppositions could even be reasonably made, still the concealment of the design, for any duration, would be impracticable.”

      “But the question again recurs, upon what pretense could he [the Executive] be put in possession of a force of that magnitude in time of peace?”

      “It is impossible that the people could be long deceived; and the destruction of the project, and of the projectors, would quickly follow the discovery.”

      • The pretense, of course, is that there is never a time of peace, but rather a permanent cause of fear, a cold war or a persistent global war on terror, the conjuring of which requires oligarchy control of the mass media and thereby elections.

        This is the fearmongering of the tyrants over democracy, against which Aristotle warned.

  6. And just this week, Mr Trump said he was (while cutting taxes in half) going to “expand the military.” Perhaps a 13th aircraft carrier? Or a few more squadrons of F-35 fighter planes (at approximately $100 million each). Good grief; it’s already insane, and he wants to make it worse.

    • In this regard, the person running against Trump is no different in substance-unless you go by the surface. The republic of the founding fathers’ (particularly Washington, Jefferson, and perhaps later Lincoln and FDR) imaginings has been caught in the dragnet of our grand military-industrial-education-media complex.

  7. It’s scary enough to have all this power in Obama’s hands, or in Hillary’s. But it is starting to look like the keys to the kingdom are about to be handed over to one Donald J. Trump, a self-absorbed egotist who lies constantly for personal gain, a supremely manipulative con artist who has been involved in 3,500 lawsuits, who vindictively goes after anyone who says something he doesn’t like, who openly admires “strongmen” Putin and Kim Jong Un, who talks of the wholesale removal of generals.

    Obama in building all this up even more (the drones, the NSA, the special ops; fracking, TPP, Obamacare) no doubt thought it would all be passed on to Hillary who is knowledgeable, intelligent and “moderate” and would continue his relatively predictable path. Ooops. So many things can really go off the rails, and as Snowden says, the
    Pres who comes next can decide to “flip that switch”:
    link to thelibertarianrepublic.com

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