Congress Must Reclaim its War Powers

No War on Syria

The potential firing of Robert Mueller and/or Rod Rosenstein has focused a great deal of angst and hand-wringing on the looming potential for a constitutional crisis.  Not nearly enough attention, on the other hand, has been paid to the one that is already upon us.

We as a nation have arrived at a truly perilous moment.  Although that seems like a familiar refrain since January 20, 2017, the crisis in question far predates the existing administration and represents the cumulative decades-long systems failure of constitutional checks and balances.

The Founding Fathers of our nation devised an ironclad system when it came to balancing the executive, legislative, and judicial aspects of governance.  James Madison, Thomas Jefferson et al may have had a giant blind spot when it came to slavery and the marginalization of women and minorities, but they had an extremely focused vision of how to prevent tyranny.  Honed out of necessity, they built a king-proof America where the authority to adjudicate law, govern, and wage war was divided amongst co-equal branches that could check and balance one another.

There was a simple but elegant brilliance to this arrangement, and the systems they created remain in place to this day, although some have had their effectiveness eroded by operator error.  The judicial branch seems to have escaped largely unscathed, still possessing the wherewithal to block many of the current administration’s more nefarious, hateful and discriminatory executive orders.  Governance has been a hit or miss proposition in recent years with a Republican majority that seems far more concerned with the wishes of their donors than the will of the people, though that is a transparency that voters seem ready to punish this coming November.  When it comes to the power to wage war, however, the only real failure of Madison’s foresight is on full display: if one of those branches abdicates or ignores their responsibility, the power to check the others is meaningless.

This is not a failure to be laid solely on the doorstep of the McConnell-Ryan Republican Congress.  When the Authorization of the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists was passed following the 9/11 attacks, there was only a solitary dissenting vote in either party in both houses of Congress:  Barbara Lee, who argued that the war powers the bill afforded to the presidency were far too broad and lacked a sunset provision. Seventeen years later, it seems her concerns were nothing short of prophetic:  the 2001 AUMF remains in effect, and has been used to justify military operations sans congressional approval in fourteen countries ranging from Kenya to the Philippines, including the ongoing air campaign in Yemen and Friday’s cruise missile strike on suspected Syrian chemical warfare sites.  

The lack of congressional oversight over how and where our forces and munitions are deployed allowed for a tenfold increase in drone strikes over the course of the Obama presidency, and a record number of airstrikes in Yemen and Somalia over Trump’s first year.  And while late-career Obama imposed limitations on his own drone program by enacting rules designed to restrict strikes with the potential for civilian casualties only to declared war zones, the Trump administration has shown no such restraint. Between the relaxation of even those limited rules of engagement and the ramping up of offensive operations in Iraq and Syria, civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes grew over 200 percent in 2017.  All of this, sadly, has been validated within the loose restrictions of the AUMF.

And then there was Syria.

Last year’s missile strike against Al-Shayrat airbase in the wake of a chemical strike was a fairly stunning overreach of the existing AUMF, but the Trump administration literally doubled down on it on April 13, sending over 118 cruise missiles at three facilities allegedly producing chemical weapons for the government of Bashar al-Assad.   Put aside, for a moment, the criminal extension of the AUMF’s authority in aiding and abetting the Saudi proxy war in Yemen. This attack in Syria marks the second time in the past year that the president has illegally committed an act of war toward a sovereign nation without express congressional or international approval, and it is part of a larger and disturbing pattern.  Congress has failed to reign in three successive sitting presidents on the waging of a global campaign ostensibly directed at terrorists and their allies. At every step along the way, Congress has shown a willingness to abdicate its constitutional responsibility to provide oversight over the power to make war, trading their fundamental right and responsibility in exchange for an ambiguous promise of security.

Although it will be billed as such, this is not simply a partisan issue, and it won’t be fixed by a different group of decision-makers in November; it is a systemic failure of Congress writ large to provide the check needed on the executive branch.  A change in faces matters little without a change in mindset. The next set of legislators to head to the Hill needs to embrace that the power to wage war is one that cannot be left solely to the whims of the president. And it is up to us as voters to select candidates that will not follow blindly along behind a destructive, overreaching foreign policy that has cost thousands of civilian lives and accomplished very little in the process.