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Congress: Stop Moaning About Syria and Start Voting on Wars

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It has been more than two weeks since President Donald Trump made the spontaneous decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, and critics have been hammering him for allegedly green-lighting a Turkish invasion. Washington is in a tizzy, courtesy of a mainstream media that continues to cover an extraordinarily complicated story as if it were an easy case of good versus evil. Trump, under pressure from a Republican Party normally prepared to jump in front of a freight train on his behalf, is discovering that pulling American troops out of the Middle East is a lot more difficult than he initially thought.

Democrats and Republicans aren’t in agreement on much these days. But both parties have come together to try to keep U.S. forces stuck in the Syrian desert indefinitely. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding, symbolic resolution panning the U.S. withdrawal and calling on the White House to pressure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stand down (two thirds of the House GOP conference voted with Democrats to send the resolution to the Senate). Senators Lindsey Graham and Chris Van Hollen have circulated a bill that would enact sanctions against the Turks and punish any foreign entity that does business with the Turkish defense sector. And in perhaps the most significant action taken by Congress to date, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced a resolution this week that “calls for a halt to the withdrawal” and demands the administration certify the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda before authorizing any further drawdowns.

It appears that legislators are finally feeling their oats and discovering that, as an independent and co-equal branch of the United States government, Congress actually has power over foreign policy. As Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr told colleagues, “Congress has a voice. And now is the time…to exercise it.”

But if Congress wants to start exercising its voice, it shouldn’t do so by enacting meaningless resolutions with no teeth. Lawmakers should instead take a look at the U.S. Constitution and scroll down to Article I, Section 8: “the Congress shall have power to…declare war.”

There is nothing more consequential for members of Congress than the decision to send U.S. servicemembers into combat. Declaring war, or at least authorizing the use of military force, is an enormously serious move because war is messy, risky, and unpredictable. Despite countless hours of wargaming scenarios at the Pentagon, warfare has a habit of springing surprises on even the most meticulous planners. The phrase “no plan survives contact with the enemy” may be a cliché, but it also happens to be accurate. Jumping into a conflict requires foresight, constant evaluation of the circumstances, and a comprehensive examination of the costs and benefits. This is one reason why the architects of the Constitution granted the legislative branch the power to make the ultimate decision: the importance of transitioning from peace to war is simply too great to be placed on a single set of shoulders.

Unfortunately, what the founders envisioned has increasingly been abandoned, at least in the nation’s capital. There are a few on Capitol Hill today who treat the legislative branch’s war powers with the seriousness they deserve. Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Tim Kaine, Barbara Lee, and Justin Amash have been raising this issue for years, but most of the rest of them couldn’t care less. They seem to think going through the motions of a war debate is time that could be better spent naming post offices or passing bills that hold as much authority as a press release. After all, why vote on the record and potentially open yourself to political fallout when you could shift the responsibility to the president and carp from the sidelines when things don’t go well?

None of this is new, of course. The last time Congress voted on a war authorization was 17 years ago, when the George W. Bush administration pulled out all the stops against Saddam “Mushroom Cloud” Hussein. Most lawmakers accepted the administration’s arguments with barely a blink, which enabled one of the gravest U.S. foreign policy blunders in modern history. Since then, politicians have had far more incentive to duck war votes than to take them.

Curiously, this reticence doesn’t extend to voting on resolutions that seek to preserve America’s military presence in the Middle East. Legislators are more interested in stopping troop withdrawals from unauthorized conflicts than authorizing those conflicts in the first place. Ask Congress to engage in an honest, open, and transparent national conversation before launching the first cruise missile and they run for the hills like villagers from a flash flood. But ask them to spend an hour on the floor blasting the president for losing his “resolve” or upending American “leadership” (those favorite Beltway buzzwords), and they arrive with speeches in hand. It would all be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressing.

As former vice president Joe Biden likes to say, “here’s the deal”: the way the United States makes war in 2019 couldn’t be any more perverse. It pulls the rug out from under what the founders of the nation codified in 1776. The longer this continues, the more irrelevant Congress will become and the easier it will be for a president to throw the United States into ill-advised combat.

Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The American Conservative.

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