“The prudent course of action,” Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) suggested Thursday for President Trump in response to Tuesday’s chemical weapon attack in Syria, “would be for him to go to Congress and consult, discuss privately what he is going to do.” The White House would “have the authority [to launch a military intervention] without that,” Corker added, “but my sense is that they will come to us.”
Corker is to be credited for his interest in prudence and legislative input on foreign policy, but the role he here imagines for Congress is both constitutionally and strategically too small. This may seem like a quibbling detail in the face of the horror we see in Syria, but given the last 16 years of reckless and counterproductive foreign policy, the United States cannot afford another ill-conceived, illegal rush to war.
Where Corker goes awry is his description of congressional war-making authority, which is assigned by the Constitution, and executive war-making authority, which does not exist.
Our founding document assigns the power to “declare war” exclusively to Congress, a decision James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention indicated was a deliberate limitation on the presidency. A single man may be persuaded to launch a war he’ll soon regret; Congress, in theory anyway, is better equipped for grand strategy and debate at the direction of the American people.
Corker also runs afoul of the War Powers Act, the 1973 law with which Congress attempted to regain some of the foreign policy authority it abdicated for decades and has yet to reclaim. This act is often misconstrued to permit the president to deploy U.S. troops for 90 days in advance of congressional review, and that is likely what Corker referenced when he said the Trump administration has the authority to go to war in Syria without so much as a congressional consult.
The trouble is that, in a section explicitly limiting executive powers, the War Powers Act specifies the president can “introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities” only under three circumstances: “(1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
As deeply appalling as this fresh brutality in Syria is, none of these requirements have been met.
Congress has not declared war or even passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Bashar al-Assad regime. And though that regime’s slaughter of innocent civilians, including children, cannot be met with too strong a condemnation, this chemical attack has not affected any of the U.S. interests specified in the third category.
If Corker seeks a course of prudence in Syria, he would do well to work with two of his Senate colleagues who have offered much-needed voices of restraint this week, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), the latter of whom sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee with Corker.
“If the United States is to increase our use of military force in Syria, we should follow the Constitution and seek the proper authorization from Congress,” Lee said in a statement Thursday. “President Trump should make his case in front of the American people and allow their elected representatives to debate the benefits and risks of further Middle East intervention to our national security interests.” To allow war-making at the president’s discretion, Lee likewise argued on CNN Wednesday, is unconstitutional and unwise.
Paul made the same case in an interview on Fox News Radio Thursday. “The first thing we ought to do [about Syria] is probably obey the Constitution,” he said, expressing hope that “the president, if he decides to do something in Syria, he would come to Congress and ask for a declaration of war.”
The pictures coming out of Syria are and long have been “heartrending,” Paul continued, but they can’t be the sole basis of major American foreign policy choices. In “going to war we have to decide will it be better or worse?” he asked. “Will we improve our national security? Are we threatened currently by Syria, and if we go to war is Assad likely to use less chemical weapons or more?”
That these queries—especially concerning civilian casualties—cannot be easily answered is further evidence of the wisdom of assigning war powers to Congress, not the White House. These questions and more are best considered in an in-depth congressional and national debate, not the casual backroom consult Corker’s remarks perhaps unintentionally envisioned.
“I’m opposed to illegal and unconstitutional wars,” Paul concluded. I am too, and so should President Trump be if he is serious about bringing a new foreign policy of stability, prudence, and peace.