Does Trump need congressional approval to strike Syria? The debate, explained.
It’s often easier, Congress has found, to just let the president do what he wants.
In Vox’s article updated by Dara Lind on Apr 7, 2017, there was quite a bit of information that we are able to think about on this issue. Without doubt we are already hearing some make the argument that his action was questionable. Surprisingly not from the Democrats or RINOs but from the hardline conservatives. While there is a question, the question should more rightly be – Should any President have the right to unilaterally declare as commander-in-chief that military actions occur without congressional approval? And when is it more important that a swift response be acceptable without congressional approval?
The article went through and attempted to make sense of the process or lack thereof which allows him this latitude. It is lengthy and for this blog more than needed. The link will be below for those who want to read it. I am going to attempt to reduce it here for consideration.
“President Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack has inspired a more bipartisan response from Congress than anything else the president has done in his 11 weeks in office.”
“The constitutional legality of last night’s strike against Syrian military forces in response to chemical weapon attack earlier this week,” Harvard Law’s Goldsmith wrote on Friday morning, “can only be justified by Article II” — by the commander in chief’s inherent powers — not by an existing congressional authority.
In other words, Trump doesn’t need to use the 2001 AUMF. He can justify what he did on Thursday night by arguing he doesn’t need any AUMF at all.
When presidents have sidestepped the War Powers Act in the past, they haven’t (usually) just asserted that they can do whatever they want. Instead, they’ve laid out specific standards for when something counts as “hostilities” that merit congressional approval — and then argued that whatever they’re doing at the time doesn’t meet that standard.
As those arguments have built on each other from president to president, they’ve erected something like a consistent framework. Basically, presidents before Trump argued they didn’t need authorization if:
- What they were doing was obviously in the US’s “national interest,” and
- The military action was strictly limited in time and scope (in other words, it wasn’t big enough to count as a real war, or even real hostilities)
Part of the issue is that congress has simply allowed Presidents over the last fifty or so years to “take the heat” for decisions rather than shoulder the decision, either for expediency or for political reasons. President Harry Truman first broke precedent. While we call the Korean War a “war” today, Truman never bothered to get a declaration of war from Congress — he just sent US troops to aid American-aligned South Korea against communist North Korea on his own.
The Obama administration actually wrote legal arguments for justifiable unilateral force that could be interpreted to validate what Trump did on Thursday night. In 2013, when it was discovered that Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in violation of international law — crossing President Obama’s famous “red line” — the administration weighed whether that test applied to a potential strike against Assad as well.
It decided that it did: that protecting an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, among other things, was an important national interest. But it decided, just like it later would in 2015, to ask Congress for approval anyway — because the administration knew it would be setting a precedent by not getting an AUMF, and that was a precedent it didn’t want to set.
Clinton administration official Walter Dellinger told the New York Times at the time, “[W]hen the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”
If Congress really wanted to, it could stop the slow creep of executive war power by forcing Trump to ask, explicitly, for approval to go after Assad. Or it could issue a strong endorsement of an intervention that could turn out to be politically popular.
Some members of Congress in both parties had been interested in limiting the scope of the 2001 AUMF for a while. In 2013, a proposal to stop funding for any AUMF-authorized activities after 2014 (led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), now the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee) failed in the Republican House.
It’s possible that members of Congress might be more inclined to push back against Trump in 2017 than they were against Obama in 2011. But “do we need an AUMF” is only the first question. The second question is what the AUMF ought to do.
The 2001 AUMF justified the war in Afghanistan, since al-Qaeda was the organization that had planned the 9/11 attacks and the Afghan Taliban had “harbored” al-Qaeda. (Congress passed a separate AUMF, in 2002, to authorize the war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq.) But it opened the door to other conflicts as well — and didn’t set a time limit for how long the authorization would stand. So the executive branch has just kept using it. By May 2016, according to a Congressional Research Service report, “the current authorization [had] been used to justify unclassified military action 37 times in 14 countries since 2001” — 18 times by President George W. Bush, and 19 times by President Barack Obama.
The consensus from Congress is that Trump should ask for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) specific to Syria. Congress really needs to end all prior AUMF and find wording with expected steps or procedures to follow as a part of every new President’s position and policies “how to” manual.
Part of the current sticking point is not so much that Trump took the action as what his future operations concerning Syria will include. In essence the War Powers Act did restrict to some degree but there have remained many shadowy areas that have either been ignored, not addressed, or were unique to a situation.
Vox did a more thorough job of explaining and can be read HERE.
Basically from the article and from Levin’s program, I got the impression that oddly enough the very summation by Obama and the plan of action prepared by his military department was a good move from one perspective–Trump had a comprehensive outline as well as solid advice on what to do from his advisors. He, unlike Obama, saw a purpose and acted upon it just as the Constitution Section II provides.
It also is obvious that with all the many topics, bills, and discord between parties, Someone ought to have stepped up back in 2013 and forced congress to understand the long-term ramifications as succeeding Presidents push the bounds ever further to the point they become a dictator.
Once the idea of his right to act has been put to rest, then the next question is “Did Trump make a wise and reasonable move in bombing?” In that case given that over 400,000 Syrians have lost their lives under the Erdogan Regime and that he has broken his word not once but many times including lies to the UN, Obama, and Russia on the use and inventory of the gas, I would say categorically he was right to help them understand that Trump does not accept lies or chemical warfare. Nor will he refrain from saying and doing what is necessary to work toward peace in the region so that Syrians and the world can feel safer.
The final question as I mentioned in the beginning is — will Congress do their part to make sure that all future Presidents have the guideline and not random decisions to present even using an instrument like the AUMF. We are tired of seeing the ineffectiveness and abdication of responsiblity by Congress either to the presidential or the judicial branches. This is not a simple fix; but to prevent erosion of the constitutional powers concerning national security or international incidents and our allies. It is one that does need to be addressed as fast as possible.
Whether I agree exactly with the action taken or not, Trump has accomplished something that in all Obama’s years had been eroded – as a man of his word, he acted. He shouldered the decision based on the advice of his cabinet, talked to congressional leaders, called to Russia and Israel about the strike, and then proceded to carry it out. Generally, because we saw over the last eight years what can happen with an out-of-control President and a wuss congress unwilling or unable to assume their mantle of responsibility, I believe that an amendment defining war powers in a step-by-step method is called for; but, will these people and the tantrum children in congress every get together to actually accomplish something is the question. It can not wait too long. The longer we ignore, the more likely a leader will rise up to the oval office that is both devious and strong enough to grab power.
Frontline Video of 2015 on Obama’s reversal of plans: https://youtu.be/ioxClOzTkj0
Mark Levin Podcast puts forward a lot of information on this out to the public. Whatever you think of him as a commentator, the substance of this podcast is very interesting:
4/7/17-Mark Levin Audio Rewind https://youtu.be/loesg0JJo5U
(note worry there are ads lol – most of his commentary is in the first 30min but callers also provide info)
“We need to amend the Constitution to update the war powers act because we have enemies acquiring nuclear, chemical and biological missles that can hit the U.S. and we need to be able to respond quickly. When you are dealing with these kind of weapons of mass destruction, everything changes because they are easily transported from country to country. We hear people saying that we need a declaration of war to drop missles into Syria. So Congress would have to debate for weeks to shoot 59 missles into Syria? How absurd. Also, Barack Obama and John Kerry put together a deal in 2013 that Russia would be in charge of making sure Syria would give up and destroy all of their chemical weapons. How could Russia not be complicit in this attack? Later, after this Syrian airstrike there are new tensions with Russia. Do you still think Trump is bought and paid for by the Russians? This strike exposed the entire rouse that Trump was a Putin puppet. This entire myth has been propagated by the media, by the Left, and even some government agencies. Finally, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed Friday as our next Supreme Court Justice. We hope he turns out to be a tremendous justice because constitutional conservatives have been disappointed time and again. Constitutionalists have Justice’s Thomas and Alito – that’s it. Justice Roberts doesn’t count because of his betrayal on Obamacare.”