“During the campaign,” a reporter said to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday, “President Trump was not shy about his desire to get the United States out of these Middle Eastern wars, yet… we just sent 250 Marines into Syria. Is President Trump committed to going to Congress to receiving authorization for an AUMF or a declaration of war if we continue to deploy United States troops overseas?”
He was referring to the news that some 400 Marines and Army Rangers were deployed to engage in ground combat at the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the besieged Islamic State. These troops join 500 American Special Operations Forces (SOF) already active in Syria, but their arrival is a noteworthy escalation beyond the near-doubling of American troop levels in the country.
Where the SOF teams fighting ISIS have tended to function in advising and intelligence roles that leave some gray area—at least, in Washington—as to whether they are in combat, this new deployment allows no doubt. This a conventional ground force that will be “establishing an outpost from which they can fire artillery guns” in the battle for Raqqa, The Washington Post reports based on comments from the Pentagon.
All of this is in theory made possible by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in the wake of 9/11. But that AUMF only permits the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against specifically “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
This new deployment in Syria fits no part of that legal authorization.
On the contrary, U.S. troops have been sent to fight an organization that did not exist in 2001 in a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11. It is utterly implausible outside Washington’s twisted logic to argue this deployment meets the Constitution’s requirements for congressional authority in foreign policy. Thus the “declaration of war” question at the White House press briefing.
Spicer’s reply was troubling in the extreme. “Well,” he said, “I think there’s a big difference between an authorization of war than sending a few hundred advisors. And I think most in Congress would probably agree with that as well. I think that’s a big difference between a hostile action and going in to address some certain concerns, whether it’s certain countries in the Middle East or elsewhere.”
This Orwellian remark is a gateway to formalizing the exceedingly casual relationship our foreign policy has had with the Constitution and common sense for years. If the White House is permitted to define sending U.S. troops into battle as something other than war—and therefore none of Congress’ (or, I’d wager, our) business—then the executive branch has completed its gutting of the rule of law and our founders’ intent for a prudent approach to foreign affairs.
And this callous treatment of the Constitution and troops alike is happening even though, as Ret. Col. Daniel L. Davis writes at RealClearDefense, “American military missions in support of an attack on Raqqa risk accidental targeting of Syrian regime troops, Russian aircraft and ground troops, as well as Iranian troops—or U.S. personnel could be mistakenly attacked and killed by Syria, Russia, or Iran.”
The warning signs that this deployment may not be in the United States’ best interest are all there, but, as Davis continues, Congress is willfully oblivious: “As the military situation escalates and the danger to U.S. interests rises, Congress remains silent,” entirely eschewing any real “debate over whether the United States should be conducting combat operations or not.”
Congressional abdication of responsibility is further evident in the Defense Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2017 revealed by the House Appropriations Committee last week. “It doesn’t advance reflection on the propriety of current activities,” notes Kurt Couchman at National Review. The trouble is, reflection is precisely what we need. “That’s the role of the authorizing committees,” Couchman adds. “The Armed Services committees reauthorize defense programs annually, but the Foreign Affairs committees have failed to do so for a long time, leading to an imbalanced and military-dominated foreign policy.”
All this becomes even more pressing in light of news that President Trump may send another 1,000 American soldiers to Kuwait as reserve forces in the fight against ISIS. Kuwait is the immediate source of the 400 Marines and Army Rangers who just arrived in Syria, so if Trump goes through with this plan, it seems reasonable to assume those 1,000 soldiers will be used to extend the same unauthorized—and therefore unconstitutional and unaccountable—ground war. Congress must reassert its constitutional authority in foreign policy before it is too late. It’s the very least they can do after failing the public and the military for so long.