Back in April, President Donald Trump ordered a U.S. missile strike on a Syrian military airfield, punishing the regime for a chemical weapons attack. Bashar Assad has no friends on Capitol Hill, but some lawmakers, from both parties, objected to Trump’s decision to carry out an act of war without congressional consent.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., spoke for this group when he said, “The administration is also going to have to set out the legal justification for tonight’s action and any future military operations against the Assad regime as part of its consultations with Congress.”
Turns out the administration didn’t have to do any such thing. The pushback came to naught. The administration used military force as it saw fit, and Congress stood by, twiddling its thumbs, much as it has done for years under Presidents Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Last week came the latest abdication. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., pushed legislation to repeal a 2001 measure and force Congress to authorize future wars, beginning in six months. Reed and 60 others voted to kill it. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., saw grave dangers in “repealing such a vital law before we have something to replace it with.”
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Congress could banish that fear by approving a new AUMF, or Authorization for Use of Military Force, before retiring the old one. But it has shown no interest in taking such responsibility.
After the 9/11 attacks, it was different. A surprised nation, aware of what had happened but not of all its origins or implications, sought to respond urgently – in part to thwart any still-unfolding plot. So Congress approved the AUMF granting the president the right “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
The language was intended to confer broad latitude to fight al-Qaida, the Taliban and those who had partnered with them. It served as the basis for invading Afghanistan, and Congress passed a similar bill for the Iraq War.
But the 2001 measure has been converted into an all-access badge. President Obama relied on it for his attacks on the Islamic State – which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks because the group didn’t exist then. A report last year by the Congressional Research Service found the AUMF had been the basis for 37 military actions in 14 countries.
And guess what? Congress has been a profile in passivity. Obama even asked it to approve a new AUMF in 2015, saying it was unwise to “continue to grant presidents unbound powers” – powers he nonetheless continued to use after Congress declined his request.
Presidents may say they are entitled to use military force whenever they think it’s in the national interest, with or without such authorization. The framers would disagree. They assigned the power to declare war to Congress.
But there has been no declaration of war since World War II. Presidents routinely send our men and women into harm’s way without asking Congress to agree.
The arrangement works for most members because it insulates them from the consequences of military action. If it goes well, they can cheer. If it goes badly, they can heap blame on the president.
That’s an unhealthy approach.