The Politics of War Powers

How Open-ended Policies Can Lead to Executive Overreach

Twenty years ago, in response to the 9/11 attacks, Congress signed into law the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). However, as Sarah Burns Associate Professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology notes, this authorization is so open-ended that every president since its passing has the ability to carry out any operation without being meaningfully stopped by Congress.

Sarah Burns
Sarah Burns

As part of her new book, The Politics of War Powers, Burns explores how these laws affect us today, even though the terror threats they were written to combat have both changed dramatically and significantly lessened over time.

What was supposed to be some form of constraint on presidential action, actually is much more of a permission slip.

– Sarah Burns

Burns addresses how over time, since the Cold War, Congress has made concessions that expanded executive power. This resulted in the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 having little in common with the formal declarations of war that Congress used to issue. For example, the declaration of war on the Imperial Government of Japan in 1941 explicitly stated that it was against the Japanese government at that specific time and not transferable to future governments, or against the people of Japan in general.

The AUMF leaves these points more loosely open to interpretation and provides the executive branch with terms that can be used to justify just about any type of military operation.

As Rosa Brooks noted in 2013, ‘Right now we have an executive branch making the claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, for secret reasons, based on secret evidence, in a secret process, undertaken by unidentified officials and that frightens me.'”

– Sarah Burns
The White House

Sarah Burns is an Institute for Humane Studies Senior Fellow for the Study of Liberalism and a Free Society. For a more in-depth look on this topic, watch the full-length talk by Burns on our YouTube channel, or read Sarah’s book The Politics of War Powers: The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism from University Press of Kansas. For additional videos, articles, and topics exploring classical liberal ideas, visit our website at

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