Earlier this month, in a move widely reported as a stinging rebuke of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Senate voted 70-26 to warn against a “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the author of the legislation, staunchly proclaimed that his chamber “will not shrink” from its important role in foreign policy.
Except it already has. The law approving U.S. operations in Afghanistan is nearly two decades old, while the American presence in Syria has no legislative mandate at all. If Congress really wants to keep U.S. forces there, here’s another idea: Instead of a nonbinding resolution itemizing the perils of a drawdown, how about the legislative branch exercise its constitutional duty and affirmatively authorize the use of force?
Curiously, McConnell’s amendment does the precise opposite. In order to garner bipartisan support, the Senate adopted language from Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., specifying that the bill is neither a declaration of war nor an authorization for the use of military force. Which begs the question, what exactly is it? The meaning is muddy but the message is clear: Congress cares just enough about fighting the Islamic State to protest a withdrawal, but not enough to make a commitment.
Related: Congress May Declare the Forever War
Under America’s constitutional structure, Congress is charged with initiating military campaigns, whereas the President is tasked with directing them. Ever since President Harry Truman bypassed Congress in 1950 to lead the United Nations intervention in Korea, this axiom has largely been honored in the breach. Kosovo, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are just a few recent examples of extended military conflicts waged under unilateral executive authority. Indeed, since 1940 there has been no time at which a campaign medal was not authorized for deployed U.S. service members.
Even by these exceedingly low standards of legislative diligence, Congress’ record on Syria has been particularly dismal. After President Barack Obama determined that Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s regime had crossed his “red line” by employing chemical weapons, he readied airstrikes in 2013 but ultimately backed down in the face of political opposition and threw the matter to Congress. Perhaps to save face, Obama maintained that he possessed the legal authority to act unilaterally but was seeking congressional support to demonstrate American resolve.
Congress, unsurprisingly, never took a vote. It was put to shame in this regard by the British Parliament, which voted both in 2013 and 2015, first to nix an intervention against Assad and then to greenlight a campaign against ISIS. Ironically, Britain’s unwritten constitution does not even require parliamentary approval owing to the “royal prerogative” in foreign affairs – presumably one reason why the framers of the U.S. Constitution, having liberated themselves at great cost from the imperial yoke, vested considerable war powers in the people’s elected representatives in Congress.
Nonetheless, by 2014 American forces were conducting extensive airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. The following year, as ISIS’ terror footprint continued to expand, the White House announced plans to intensify its efforts in the country, including the insertion of special operations forces. “Fewer than 50” ground troops inexorably morphed into 2,000.
When Trump ordered strikes against Syrian regime targets in both 2017 and 2018, he hued to his predecessor’s playbook of justifying the bombing as a limited engagement in furtherance of important national interests. Meantime, the ongoing fight against ISIS relies mainly on expansive interpretations of laws that predated the terrorist group’s existence.
A few lonely voices have sounded the alarm over congressional abdication of the war power. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and his predecessor Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., have both emphasized Congress’ moral responsibility to debate and vote when American lives are at risk. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., went so far as to propose a full-scale declaration of war against ISIS – the first since World War II. Paul’s declaration, much like the draft authorization that Obama belatedly and half-heartedly delivered to Congress, predictably went nowhere.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, once quipped that Congress prefers tough speeches to tough choices. While legislative inaction in the face of presidential overreach has become commonplace, the McConnell amendment and related efforts to restrict troop withdrawals add a troubling new wrinkle. They would enmesh American forces in a Gordian knot whereby Congress is not needed to get us into war and the President is not sufficient to get us out.
As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., rightly objected, Congress should be debating whether to put the mission in Syria on a solid legal footing, not how to prevent an illegal campaign from winding down. Tying the President’s hands in bringing the troops home represents the worst of all worlds, in which the conflict remains unauthorized, Congress remains unaccountable, and American forces remain in harm’s way.
During the Vietnam War, the late Sen. George Aiken, R-Vermont, offered a formula for solving the quagmire: “declare victory and get out.” Before dismissing this exit strategy as unserious, it pays to consider George Orwell’s alternative option of ending a war quickly by losing it.
The strategic wisdom of Trump’s troop withdrawals is debatable, but the solution is not to stop the commander-in-chief from ending a mission that was never authorized in the first place. If Congress prohibits declaring victory, the only other option may be defeat.