Let’s be clear: Syria’s Bashar Assad is a bum and probably a war criminal. Yet it does not follow that the president of the United States possesses the authority to order an armed attack on the sovereign state that Assad governs.
That authority rests with the Congress, as Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution explicitly states. As a result of President Trump’s actions, that provision has now become a dead letter. The last constraints inhibiting the use of force by whoever happens to be commander-in-chief have now disappeared. When it comes to initiating hostilities, the occupant of the Oval Office is now omnipotent.
Granted, presidents have been encroaching on congressional war powers for decades now. At least since Harry Truman ordered US troops into Korea back in 1950, the role allotted Congress in authorizing the use of force has eroded. Not since December 1941 has Congress actually “declared” war, now a quaint notion akin to asking your girlfriend’s dad for her hand in marriage.
True, to sustain a pretense of relevance, Congress has periodically issued broad statements that essentially give presidents a free hand to do as they see fit. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964 offers one infamous example of this practice. The so-called Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, passed with minimal debate on September 14, 2001, offers a second.
That document directs the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the events of 9/11. In effect, it says to the president: You decide; just keep us safe.
The AUMF is the ultimate blank check. In the 15-plus years since, senior US officials have cited it as a basis for conducting military operations against various and sundry evildoers who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. It has become the point of departure for permanent war conducted according to the whim of whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. What’s left to the Congress is simply to pay the bills, which it does routinely with minimal complaint or partisan bickering. When it comes to funding wars, bipartisanship reigns.
Small wonder then that in initiating hostilities against Syria, Trump felt no need to consult Congress. In what the New York Times describes as a “meeting of considerable length,” he huddled with a handful of aides — more than a few of them career military officers — and rendered a decision. From start to finish, the process consumed less time than Trump normally spends in signing off on the construction of a new luxury golf resort.
All indications suggest that this one military action — not much more than a pinprick really — is a mere prelude. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has announced that regime change in Syria has now become an administration priority. Unless Assad goes voluntarily, that suggests the prospect of further US military action, the nature and duration of which remain to be seen. Always eager to “support the troops,” a compliant Congress will pony up the necessary funds. The $54 billion increase to the Pentagon budget that Trump has already requested will be just for starters.
Perhaps Trump will convene another “meeting of considerable length” to assess the consequences likely to follow if and when Assad is finally removed. We must hope so. The previous results of regime change — Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 — suggest that the real trouble begins after the evil dictator leaves the scene.
Of greater concern, however, are the implications of this remarkable turn of events. How will it play in capitals such as Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang, not to mention London, Berlin, and Seoul? Will allies be reassured by the alacrity with which the administration’s indifference regarding Syria shifted to bellicosity? Will Trump’s sudden concern for the plight of the Syrian people persuade our adversaries to behave, lest they become Trump’s next target? Will they be cowed by this latest demonstration of America’s matchless military might? Or will they nervously finger their own triggers?
These are matters in which members of Congress just might want to inquire. Or, alternatively, they could undertake to revise the US Constitution by conferring on the president the additional title of Supreme Warlord and then just see what happens.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University.