Did Trump Violate the 2002 AUMF by ‘Going Into Iran’?

A geography lesson.

To lead off Tuesday’s Democratic debate, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer reminded the presidential hopefuls that “just this month, the United States and Iran were on the brink of war,”  and much of his early questioning focused on those tensions and how events have unfolded in the wake of President Trump’s decision to order strikes on leader of the Quds Forces, Qassem Suleimani.

The candidates took turns criticizing Trump’s Iran policy on the merits, arguing the president’s withdrawal from the Iran deal made the region more dangerous and his recent escalations lack strategic foresight. Those are debates that can and should be had, but one comment from Joe Biden in particular caused us to raise our eyebrows.

“There was the authorization for the use of military force that was passed by the United States Congress, House, and Senate, and signed by the president,” Joe Biden said in response to a question from Blitzer about the Obama administration’s military action without congressional approval. “That was the authority. It does not give authority to go into Iran. It gave authority to deal with these other issues.”

Biden’s comments, referring to the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution, are correct. For better or worse, the AUMF from 18 years ago is still in effect, and authorizes the president, whoever it may be, “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to—(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”

In a vacuum, Biden is also correct in arguing that the 2002 AUMF “does not give authority to go into Iran.” But if the former vice president was referring to Trump’s strike against Suleimani in his answer—and he very likely was, as Blitzer’s previous question to him was about Biden’s criticism of Trump’s decision to kill the Iranian general—he would be mistaken.

Airstrikes on Suleimani were ordered while the Iranian general was in Iraq—not Iran—plotting attacks on American forces. Just weeks earlier, Iraqi militia fighters backed by Iran killed an American contractor and wounded several other service members.

There is a legitimate debate to be had as to whether Trump was strategically correct to take out Suleimani. But it’s misleading to say that we had to “go into Iran” to do it.