Hawaii’s senior U.S. senator, Brian Schatz, is growing more outspoken on issues that concern him and the state.

In recent weeks he has been very vocal in the press and on social media denouncing the proposed Graham-Cassidy repeal of Obamacare, raising alarms about the Equifax consumer credit data breach and lambasting those who think climate change isn’t real in the age of Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Earlier this week Schatz’s office issued a press release stating that the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the Senate includes provisions he authored “that will help fund improvements to the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, strengthen public data transparency, give Hawaii and states across the country more flexibility in funding for military construction, and measure the influence of foreign powers in the Pacific.”

What Schatz has said little about, however, was a vote he took on Sept. 13 to table — that is, kill — legislation that could have led to ending the ability of the United States to conduct endless war.

L-R, Governor David Ige, First Lady Dawn Ige, Senator Brian Schatz and Right, Congressman Mark Takai during memorial services held at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. Punchbowl Cemetery. 25 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, center, with Gov. David Ige, First Lady Dawn Ige and the late Congressman Mark Takai during memorial services held at the National Cemetery of the Pacific on May 25, 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It’s called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Over the past decade and a half, the AUMF has been invoked to justify military operations in 14 countries, “including ongoing incursions in Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia.”

Schatz’s Democratic colleague from Hawaii, Sen. Mazie Hirono, voted in favor of the amendment.

So did top Democrats like Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, Tammy Duckworth, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden, Tim Kaine, Kirsten Gillibrand, Patrick Leahy, Kamala Harris and Al Franken. And the same goes for independent Bernie Sanders.

Just 12 other Democrats voted the same as Schatz, as did most Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Richard Shelby, John Cornyn and James Inhofe.

Talk about crossing the aisle.

No Debate On War

The 61-36 vote was an amendment to the defense bill from Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky. It called for sunsetting AUMFs approved in 2001 and 2002 that have allowed the White House to order military operations since the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Iraq War.

“Let’s let these expire,” Paul said the day of the vote. “And over the next six months, let’s have a debate over whether we should be at war and where.”

But, as the progressive District Sentinel reported, “Critics of the Paul amendment — mostly his fellow Republicans — decried the procedure as reckless, demonstrating weakness to friend and foe alike.”

U.S. troops participating in Operation Pershing in Vietnam in 1967. Congress never formally declared war on North Vietnam, yet more than 58,000 U.S. service members died in that conflict. Flickr: manhhai

So, why did the progressive Schatz vote the same way as most conservatives?

While agreeing that there needs to be a repeal of the AUMF as well as new debate “that reflects today’s threats,” Schatz told me this week via email that the Paul amendment had “significant deficiencies.”

“We cannot go from authorizing an open-ended war to tying our military’s hands when it comes to protecting Americans from threats abroad — or worse, having an even broader AUMF,” Schatz said. “In other words, we should not repeal without a plan to replace.”

“A new time-limited, geographically-targeted authorization will identify the threat, sharpen our policy and align appropriations for the mission — and the debate should start in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Schatz said. “I hope that Congress will go about this in the right way so that we can vote on a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force.”

Hirono felt otherwise.

She emailed me saying that Congress is obligated to provide oversight and to “authorize and define the parameter” within which a president may use military force.

Hirono called the AUMF “exceedingly broad and over a decade old” and explained that she supported the Paul amendment “because we need a thoughtful, thorough and deliberative debate about our engagements in ongoing conflicts and to clearly define and restrain the president’s authority relative to any potential future engagements.”

Keep in mind that the current president is the same one who this week threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, wants to rip up the Iran nuclear treaty, and who last month ordered 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan in 2010. Congress approved the Authorization for the Use of Military Force shortly after the 9/11 attacks, allowing the president to indefinitely deploy armed forces abroad. Flickr: The U.S. Army

Votes from a majority of senators were needed to advance the Paul amendment, so Schatz’s single vote made little difference. Three other senators were absent that day.

Still, had it passed, according to Paul, the amendment would have taken effect six months after the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act becomes law, “giving Congress time to hear from the American people and thoroughly debate granting any new, specific authority.”

Abandoning Service Members?

Schatz is in favor of debate on other issues. On Thursday, for example, he tweeted about how bad the Graham-Cassidy bill is. He said it would result in 32 million Americans losing medical insurance coverage.

“I don’t see anything wrong with debating this issue on TV. Our side is right,” he tweeted. “So the more people talk about the bill, the better for … us.”

I would argue that sending this country to war demands televised debate, too.

This is not the first time the AUMF has been challenged.

Sen. Rand Paul Speaking On The Senate Floor, Sept. 13:

The U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee surprised many when it voted nearly unanimously July 29 to repeal the AUMF. The amendment came from Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat.

“Whoa. My amdt to sunset 2001 AUMF was adopted in DOD Approps markup! GOP & Dems agree: a floor debate & vote on endless war is long overdue,” tweeted Lee, who has introduced her amendment every year since 2002.

But just three weeks later, House Speaker Paul Ryan stripped the amendment from a spending bill “in the dead of night,” as CBS News reported.

A spokeswoman for Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, said Lee’s amendment was “irresponsible” and would have left service members “in the field without an authorization to defeat al-Qaeda and ISIS and could have led to the release of the prisoners at Guantanamo.”

Where Other Hawaii Delegates Stand

Asked for comment on sunsetting the AUMF, Mike Formby, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, said, “She has always supported Barbara Lee on this issue.”

Hawaii’s other Democrat in the House, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, echoed some of the same arguments Hirono, Paul and Lee made about getting rid of the AUMF:

“For too long, the broad interpretation of the 2001 AUMF has allowed the executive branch in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations to circumvent Congress and the American people and carry out regime change interventionist wars that have resulted in strengthening terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the deaths of thousands of Americans and countless others, and have cost our country trillions of dollars,” Gabbard said in an email.

“The justifications offered by successive administrations have stretched the allowable legal authorities provided by the original AUMFs, conducting military operations in places like Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq that are not focused on the defeat of al-Qaeda or affiliated terrorist groups.”

But Gabbard, a veteran who served in the Middle East, also made an argument similar to Schatz’s.

She said the AUMF should be repealed only so long “as it is simultaneously replaced with an updated, more focused AUMF, so that necessary operations against al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups can be carried out.”

The nondebate over endless war comes as “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, has begun airing on PBS.

We should not repeal AUMF without a plan to replace.” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

More than 58,000 Americans died in that conflict, a civil war that America should never have been involved in, as the series explains.

This figure does not include the wounded, nor the fatalities on the Vietnamese side, believed to be several million people.

While Congress did approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, letting President Lyndon Johnson “take all necessary measures” to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States in Southeast Asia, it was not a formal war declaration. The war was intended to halt the spread of Communism, but the North took over the South two years after the U.S. left.

Another misguided war, the one in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom), resulted in nearly 5,000 U.S. and coalition fatalities. The war in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom), meanwhile, has seen more than 3,500 coalition deaths as it enters its 17th year with no end in sight.

The U.S., reports Business Insider, has 1.3 million troops on active duty with more than a third of them overseas. Their locations include hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.

Why aren’t we talking more about this?

In his floor testimony on his amendment the day before the vote, Paul said, “I rise today to oppose unauthorized, undeclared and unconstitutional war.”

On the day of the vote, he reminded his colleagues that it is their job to “to enforce, obey and execute” the U.S. Constitution, the document that makes clear only Congress can declare war.

If only more leaders, including ours, would stand up as well.

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