As he prepared to leave office, President Obama also prepared for substantial U.S. military activity in Eastern Europe. Little noticed in the electoral and inaugural hubbub, the outgoing president’s buildup of American troop levels—already nearing 70,000 Europe-wide—culminated in January with the deployment of another 4,000 U.S. forces and 2,800 pieces of military equipment to Poland.
Feted by Polish leadership and generally ignored here in the States, this buildup marks the “first time Western forces are being deployed on a continuous basis to NATO's eastern flank.” This is a substantial escalation over the minimal U.S. troop presence maintained in Poland as recently as 2014, and it shows every sign of becoming a major, permanent commitment.
Thus the buildup’s significance ought not be downplayed, but that is exactly what has happened, most egregiously in the halls of Congress. One might imagine that the branch of government constitutionally tasked with initiating military engagement might have something to say about a lame-duck president launching a Cold War redux. One would be wrong.
If my description seems hyperbolic, I assure you it is not. “Let me be clear,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tim Ray at a ceremony welcoming new U.S. troops to Europe, “this is one part of our efforts to deter Russian aggression, [to] ensure the territorial integrity of our allies and maintain a Europe that is whole, free, prosperous, and at peace.” Ray’s comments were amplified by Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz, who described the arrival of U.S. soldiers as aid in Poland’s formerly lonely quest of “protect[ing] civilization from aggression that came from the east.”
Moscow got the message. As much as NATO members might cast Obama’s buildup as a defensive move, the Kremlin does not agree. “We perceive it as a threat,” said Dmitry Peskov on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “These actions threaten our interests, our security.” Particularly roiling, Peskov added, is the fact that the buildup comes from a “third party” state—i.e. not a European country. The dramatic language that sees U.S. troops in Poland on a mission to save peace and civilization itself from the Russian bear—blatant Cold War throwback phrasing—no doubt exacerbated Moscow’s rage.
For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the question of who is right and who is the aggressor. Whether the United States is rightly defending our NATO allies against Russian belligerence or, as Putin argues, the outgoing administration is, unprovoked, backing Moscow into a corner, the fact remains that this is a serious military commitment escalating without explicit congressional approval or even meaningful advisement.
That idleness is unacceptable. “There can be no question that the responsibility for deciding when and whether the United States should fight resides with the legislative branch, not the executive, and that this was manifestly the intent of the Framers” of the Constitution, writes Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, a combat veteran and military historian. “The president’s designation as commander-in-chief of the armed forces in no way implies a blanket authorization to employ those forces however he sees fit or anything faintly like it,” he adds. “Quite the contrary: legitimizing presidential command requires explicit congressional sanction.”
Since 1942 (the last time the United States made a formal declaration of war) and even more so since 2002 (the last time Congress bothered with so much as an Authorization for Use of Military Force), that constitutional requirement has been nearly trampled into oblivion by a shiftless Congress and increasingly imperial presidency. “Superseding the written text is an unwritten counterpart that goes something like this: with legislators largely consigned to the status of observers, presidents pretty much wage war whenever, wherever, and however they see fit,” says Bacevich. Ditto, it seems, for major troop deployments abroad.
That new normal is dangerous enough where the war on terror is concerned, but it is freshly troubling in regards to troop movements clearly designed to shape American relations with another major state power. To be sure, Russia’s military might is nowhere our own, and it is irresponsible to hype the threat Russia could realistically pose to the U.S. Still, steps toward war with a modern nuclear power are never to be taken lightly, however unlikely such outright conflict might seem at this moment. They certainly are never to be taken without congressional debate and consent.
If his personal friendliness toward Putin and criticism of NATO is any indication, our new President Trump may well reverse Obama’s military buildup in Eastern Europe. Then again, he might not. Whatever Trump’s plans, Congress’ responsibility is clear, and its excuses for reckless idleness are nonexistent.