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Congress Has Willfully Abdicated Its Responsibility Over War
It’s time for legislators to share in the authority they claim to want.
In August 2013, after Syrian government forces killed more than 1,000 civilians in a sarin gas attack, I went to Capitol Hill to ask every member of Congress I knew to support then-President Barack Obama’s request to authorize a military response. I was amazed to find that many members agreed privately that the United States should enforce a red line against chemical weapons attacks in Syria but would not give the president their public support. One told me: “If Obama thinks this is so important, why doesn’t he just do it? Why is he asking us?”
President Donald Trump’s missile strikes following the latest chemical attack in Syria have again sparked debate about whether presidents can wage war without congressional authorization. The Constitution is clear that Congress should have a say. But those who rightly champion this principle have to acknowledge that respect for it broke down years ago, during Democratic as well as Republican administrations — not just because presidents have done what they pleased but because Congress has willfully abdicated its responsibilities.
Virtually every U.S. military action since President Harry Truman went to war in Korea has been undertaken without explicit congressional assent. President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon in 1982, invaded Grenada in 1983, and bombed Libya in 1986 without a vote of support from Congress. Congress refused to back President Bill Clinton when he launched airstrikes with NATO to end genocide in Bosnia in 1995 and to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. When Clinton deployed U.S. troops to enforce the peace accord he negotiated in Bosnia, the House voted to support the troops but oppose the policy; he deployed the troops anyway. Many members complained, but Congress never withheld funding from these missions, tacitly allowing what it publicly questioned.
Likewise, Obama spent months conducting thousands of airstrikes in Libya in 2011 while claiming he didn’t need Congress because U.S. actions there in support of its NATO allies didn’t constitute a war. Congress did nothing to support or stop him. Meanwhile, the war against the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and beyond has been conducted under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed after 9/11 — a flimsy legal justification, since the authorization allows strikes only against al Qaeda and associated forces and the Islamic State has itself been at war with al Qaeda in Syria for some time. Yet I doubt whether Congress would have authorized a separate mission against the Islamic State fast enough had the Obama administration asked for it before launching the operation in 2014. I was involved in that decision, and it is often forgotten that it began as a humanitarian rescue of thousands of ethnic Yazidis, whom the Islamic State had chased from their homes in Sinjar, Iraq, up a mountain where they were stranded without food and water and facing an imminent massacre. We had to act within days to protect them, and it’s hard to imagine that Congress, as it functions today, could have gotten its act together in time to consent.
Some members of Congress, including Sens. Bob Corker and Tim Kaine, have tried to update the 2001 AUMF, but so far their efforts have been in vain. As for Syria, the war there has been raging for seven years; U.S. forces have been bombing Syria every day for three and a half years; and we’ve had troops on the ground for almost two years. Congress has had ample opportunities to authorize, circumscribe, or forbid military action — it did not have to wait for Obama or Trump to ask. It could pass a resolution today if it wanted to. Instead, it has chosen to say nothing.
Over the years, increasing partisanship has led many members of Congress reflexively to speak in favor of any military action launched by presidents of their own party while withholding support to presidents of the opposing party. Many Republicans who refused Obama’s request to authorize airstrikes against the Syrian regime in 2013, when it was politically hard but might have made a difference, backed Trump’s strikes in 2017 and again last weekend.
But the main reason why Congress abdicates responsibility is that many members simply don’t want responsibility. If they were to stop a president from taking military action, they might be blamed if children subsequently got gassed or a terrorist group then blew up a plane. If members of Congress were to vote to allow a military action, they might then share the blame if the mission were to go wrong. So they demand in the abstract that presidents ask their approval for going to war but in practice prefer to let presidents bear the burden alone. This puts presidents who actually believe in the rule of law in an impossible position, especially in humanitarian emergencies like Bosnia, Syria, and the Sinjar rescue — to uphold one legal norm (against genocide or the use of poison gas), they must ignore another.
As a Democratic congressional candidate in the Trump era, I face political pressures that argue for saying as little possible on the substance of military operations like the recent Syria strikes. It’s easier just to condemn Trump and the illegality of the process by which he made the decision. But if Congress is truly to play a coequal role in deciding when to make war, those who serve or aspire to serve in Congress must be willing to say what they think is the right thing to do in these difficult situations, whatever the politics and whoever is president.
Personally, I have long thought that the United States should act with its allies to try to bring an end to the war in Syria that has caused such unbearable horror and suffering. My views are shaped by personal experience, of traveling to areas of Syria in 2012 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was bombing; of meeting countless Syrians who pleaded with me, as a U.S. government official, to advocate for U.S. action; of sitting in the State Department and looking at photographs of thousands of Syrians who had been starved to death in Assad’s prisons. I also believe that the United States, if it had acted sooner, might have prevented the Islamic State from taking over much of the country and millions of Syrians from migrating to Europe — the calamities that sparked much of the fear and hate that poison U.S. and European politics today.
Unlike the partisan Republicans who could not bring themselves to back anything Obama did, I would support Congress authorizing a serious military effort today in Syria if it were designed to prevent more civilian massacres and support diplomacy to achieve a permanent cease-fire. (Experience has shown us that Assad will not give ground at the negotiating table if he is gaining ground unchecked on the battlefield.)
But Trump’s strike did not meet that test. It was more like a kinetic tweet — a showy one-off statement to make himself feel strong yet insufficient to change the calculus for Assad’s regime or to support a negotiating strategy that Trump’s depleted and demoralized State Department probably couldn’t carry out anyway.
There are no easy solutions to problems like the ones in Syria, and I wish more countries would share the United States’ burden in addressing them. But like it or not, the United States is still the only country willing and able to use great power for good in the world, and when it withdraws, the forces that fill the vacuum often end up threatening us all. Congress has a constitutional right to help decide and limit how the country uses its military power. But to assert this right, the legislature must also live up to the responsibility that goes with it, with leaders who are willing to bear it and capable of doing so wisely.