The vote that Congress took before the United States invaded Iraq proved very important in American democracy. Barack Obama was able to beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries in large part because she had supported the Iraq War. And Donald Trump triumphed over the establishments of both the Republican and Democratic parties partly by pointing to their support for the catastrophe and exploiting the fact that he was never forced, as a reality-TV star, to go on record.
Put another way, the life-and-death judgments of legislators had consequences, as the Framers intended when they vested Congress, not the president, with the power to declare war. In contrast, there was no congressional vote or pick-a-side public debate about attacking Syria with missiles or sending American troops to fight there.
Yet last April, President Trump fired 59 tomahawk missiles at regime targets in Syria. And today, roughly 2,000 American troops are fighting ISIS in the country.
That figure, released this week by the Pentagon, is four times higher than what the Obama administration misleadingly claimed. And it excludes troops assigned to classified missions, special-operations forces, and aircrews flying from outside Iraq and Syria.
What’s more, the American presence is open-ended.
“The U.S. military plans to stay in Syria as long as necessary to ensure the Islamic State group does not return,” a Pentagon spokesperson told Agence France Presse. “We are going to maintain our commitment on the ground as long as we need to, to support our partners and prevent the return of terrorist groups.”
Daniel Larison argues that Trump’s approach invites never-ending war:
If “supporting partners” and “preventing” terrorist groups from returning are the reasons for keeping U.S. forces in Syria, there will never be a time when those forces won’t be “needed.” There will always be some group that the U.S. can identify as a “partner” that we must not “abandon,” and there will always be the possibility that a terrorist group could enter Syria at some point in the future. Thanks to the Trump administration’s policy, the U.S. is going to be policing some part of Syria with no end in sight. It is mission creep of the mindless sort, and sooner or later it is going to cost the lives of Americans.
Others worry that an open-ended U.S. presence risks needless conflict with Russia.
If the Trump administration adhered to the Constitution, Congress would have had to vote on whether or not to allow missile strikes against the regime—it declined to grant President Obama such permission when he sought it in 2013—and whether U.S. troops will stay in Syria indefinitely. If only for self-preservation, more elected officials would study the conflict, consider warnings like the ones above, and render an informed judgment about what to do.
The public would even have an opportunity to sway them.
Instead, Trump has ceded decisions about war to unaccountable elites in the administrative state, to an even greater degree than his predecessors had done. Whether America will spend untold billions for an unknown number of additional years is even farther removed from whether citizens see that course as the best use of lives and tax dollars. And whether America’s Syria policy is a striking success or failure, many voters will have a hard time figuring out where their representative stood on the matter.
Congress is well-aware of its abdication.
Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee have made unsuccessful pushes for Congress to act, as have Representative Barbara Lee and others in the House of Representatives.
“I just don’t get a good feeling that whatever we’re doing has been thoroughly thought out and there’s some kind of a plan,” Representative Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN last spring. “He needs to tell us what his strategy is in Syria, what he thinks he’s going to do in the future, and whatever he decides to do, the president has to come to Congress for authorization.”
But Trump will not come to Congress of his own accord; nor will he respect the implicit promise he made during his campaign to give the public a say in foreign policy; and the laughable response the White House gave when asked to justify the legality of its missile attack on Syria—declining to make public any substantive legal memos or discussions—shows its disregard for the rule of law.
The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune came closer to the mark when putting the impetus on all lawmakers to end their unseemly cowardice. “If our men and women in uniform will be expected to put their lives on the line against hostile forces in Syria,” it wrote, “our men and women on Capitol Hill should be brave enough to take responsibility for that mission. Doing nothing should not be an option.”