By Paul Kane,
Todd C. Young and Tim Kaine are an unlikely Senate duo to lead the effort at rewriting the rules of military engagement in fighting enemies abroad.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Young (R-Ind.) did his last day as a low-level assistant at the Heritage Foundation, a few weeks before starting as a Senate aide. The former Marine intelligence officer was in a bagel shop a few blocks from the Capitol when a second plane hit the twin towers in Manhattan.
Kaine (D-Va.) had resigned the day before as mayor of Richmond to focus entirely on his campaign for lieutenant governor, expecting to do local news interviews all day near the state Capitol.
Two decades later — after thousands of U.S. soldiers lost their lives in the ensuing wars, which cost trillions of dollars — these two senators are trying to shame their fellow lawmakers into taking ownership of American foreign policy.
Ever since Congress signed off on a war resolution a week after the 9/11 attacks, lawmakers have allowed two Republican and two Democratic presidents virtual free rein over fighting terrorists.
American troops killed Osama bin Laden 11½ years ago, knocked his hosts, the Taliban, out of power and spent the last decade in a low-simmer war without much direction. President Biden ordered the pullout of Kabul by Aug. 31, and U.S. diplomats are now negotiating with a newer version of the Taliban in order to get more allies out of that nation.
Yet that war resolution — drafted by then-Sen. Biden as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee — lives on. It’s now been cited as validation for missions in 19 different locations, according to the most recent estimate from Kaine’s staff.
The Virginian, who won his first Senate race in 2012, has tilted at this windmill almost from his first day in the Capitol. And Young, who joined the Senate in 2017 after six years in the House, has taken up the mantle of several other Senate Republicans who previously worked with Kaine on this issue.
These two senators both eschew the partisan broadsides that dominate today’s political culture, happy to embrace nuance while remaining diplomatic in explaining the congressional atrophy on foreign affairs.
“Politically, it’s sometimes a very difficult vote to determine whether to send our young men and women into combat zones, especially when the public hasn’t already been persuaded that it’s necessary,” Young said in an interview last month, before the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “It’s still our job. It’s still our job, but we need to own it.”
“He’s my thought partner on this,” Kaine said in an interview Thursday.
Translation: Congress suffers from political cowardice.
Kaine and Young scored a preliminary victory in early August when the Foreign Relations Committee approved a measure that would repeal the resolutions for the 1991 and 2002 wars in Iraq, both of which have grown obsolete yet remain in effect despite Saddam Hussein’s execution nearly 15 years ago.
Kaine, who is pushing for the full Senate to take up the repeal, is outright bullish that they will win. “We’ve got the votes,” he said.
Young is realistic in assessing this effort. He believes that repealing these authorizations for the use of military force — AUMFs, in congressional parlance — is about reinstalling “muscle memory” for lawmakers to learn how engage in foreign affairs.
“It’s an act of legislative hygiene. You clear out things that have expired and are no longer needed,” he said.
The more critical effort will be rewriting the 2001 resolution to define the terms of the war against terrorists in the years ahead.
That 2001 resolution barely covered one page and comes down to a simple declaration that gave then-President Bush this power: “. . . 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 Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.”
The elastic nature of that language — “to prevent any future acts” — allowed presidents to act in expansive ways, sometimes drawing angry responses from lawmakers but never any actual legislation that would rein in their powers.
Kaine viewed Barack Obama as “delicate and subtle” in his approach to war powers, but deep down he happily took “unilateral” action as president.
With Donald Trump, Kaine said, “It was all executive power.”
Now, he thinks the “missing ingredient” has been found, a president who served 36 years in the Senate, including chairing Foreign Relations, who has given support to the push for a new AUMF.
Young, 49, thinks that the botched exit from Afghanistan gives Republicans more incentive to want to draw up a new resolution to define what Biden can do.
“I actually think this will give additional support,” he said in a follow-up interview Thursday.
Traditionally, Republicans want to impose fewer limits on the military and generally despise hard timelines, believing that enemy soldiers will just wait out U.S. troops and then swoop in after their exit.
Democrats want to clearly define the enemy and within which region the fighting will take place, with a true deadline that would sunset the authority for military force.
“If you don’t put some kind of sunset provision in, these things go on in perpetuity,” Kaine said.
Kaine and Young argued, in a 26-page essay for the Harvard Journal on Legislation, for a sunset that would require Congress to review an ongoing military effort and afford lawmakers the chance to repeal the AUMF every few years.
Kaine’s past efforts suffered a bit from his partners, then-Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Both Republicans bitterly clashed with Trump and whose renegade status made it difficult for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to support.
Now, in Young, Kaine has a partner who is close to the GOP leader. Young served as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2020 and has avoided any Trump-inspired primary challenge in his own reelection bid next year.
Young said he wants to “validate the successes” of the Trump years, but also wants to point Republicans beyond the last 40 years of Trump, Ronald Reagan and the Bushes.
“I am going to be part of, and all my constituents will be part of, writing the next chapter of Republican successes. And we can’t look back to what we’ve just done because that’s already been done,” he said.
Kaine, 63, no longer has “rising star” attached to his name. His party’s 2016 vice-presidential nominee, he’s now entered a more elder statesman role. He and Young are both part of a centrist-minded bipartisan coalition that occasionally works on domestic policy issues.
But they both know their biggest role would be getting Congress to once again serve as a coequal branch to the presidency on matters of war and peace.
“Congress must rise to the occasion,” they wrote in the Harvard journal. “We pledge our leadership and good faith.”