Why I Sued My Commander-in-Chief, President Obama
In 2014, President Barack Obama redeployed American troops to Iraq in a conflict that would eventually expand into Syria. This decision was reached unilaterally, without true congressional debate, let alone authorization.
So while serving in uniform, I decided to sue my commander-in-chief, challenging what I believed to be an unconstitutional order. I hoped that my lawsuit might galvanize Congress to reassert its authority and vote on a new AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) that would either approve of or end the conflict.
I failed. Congress refused to act, acquiescing silently as the executive branch usurped even more of its authority.
Congress shamelessly stood by as American troops were ordered into harm’s way ostensibly to defeat ISIS but absent any regional strategy or off-ramp. Never have I regretted my lawsuit, and in the three years since, I have grown ever more disgusted with a political elite who offer no solutions beyond perpetual war. Like most Americans, I realize something is deeply wrong with our foreign policy and that a course correction is needed.
Against this backdrop, I have reflected on the decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw troops from Syria. Do I think his decision-making process was flawed? Yes.
Do I fear for the Kurds who are caught between a hostile Turkey and dangerous Syrian regime? Very much so.
Do I worry that the Islamic State remains potent and dangerous even in its admittedly weakened state? I do.
But can I bring myself to condemn this action to bring home troops during a time of forever war, in a regional quagmire with no clearly defined objectives and zero congressional authorization? I cannot.
The last several weeks have witnessed a smorgasbord of punditry decrying the withdrawal decision as irresponsible. As so often seems the case with America’s media and politicians, however, this criticism misses the point and reeks of hypocrisy.
If America’s troop presence is so obviously necessary in Syria that a withdrawal will prove catastrophic to our national security (as is contended), then why has it proven impossible over the last four years for Congress to actually vote for the conflict? As a soldier who was once involved in these hostilities, it is fair for me to ask that question. Just as with my lawsuit three years ago, however, expect to hear nothing but deafening silence.
The hypocrisy here is rank, and examples abound. For brevity’s sake, let’s take the case of the lawmaker whose actions more than any other illustrate the cynical ceding of congressional power in pursuit of shallow partisan victories. Former senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, was from 2015 until this January the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the body charged with congressional war-making powers.
In three years as chairman, Corker could have led on the issue. He could have hammered out an AUMF to be voted up or down. He failed miserably. Under Corker’s tenure, no AUMF ever reached the Senate floor. Many drafts have apparently died almost at the moment of inception, most likely for political reasons. Who wants to be on the record voting for war? Yet this has not stopped Corker from derisively declaring Trump’s Syria withdrawal announcement “obviously a political decision.”
Americans instinctively understand that the Republic depends on each branch of government jealously guarding the powers assigned to them by the Founders. Congressional leaders putting an end to absurd national security clauses in seemingly every statute passed over the last 30 years and clawing back a role in authorizing wars qualify as prime examples. Yet time and again, Corker failed to do that, prioritizing narrow partisan victories over his own oath to the Constitution. While he may go to his political grave reveling in his witty #AlertTheDaycareStaff tweets directed at the president, he will also go knowing that his duty to protect congressional authority regarding war powers against this and future presidents went disgracefully undone.
I am tired of seeing Christmas Facebook posts from my friends’ spouses serving in forgotten conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan, where the military has done its job but policymakers have failed to do theirs. I am tired of seeing poll after poll demonstrating public dissatisfaction with U.S. military actions while no course correction is ever attempted.
After four years warning of dangerous precedents and speaking against the immorality of putting troops in harm’s way absent legislative approval, Congress has still not voted. So even if it’s four years late, and even if it’s the wrong branch of government initiating the action, and even if the process leaves much to be desired, I will accept this end to an illegal war.
In the long term, America needs a dramatic change that involves more than just the executive branch. Until we arrive again as a nation at that moment, however, my military friends deserve the same vantage point to the dysfunction as most Americans: at home, surrounded by family and friends, rather than far away in an endless, illegal war.
Nathan Smith is a former Army officer with deployments to Kuwait and Afghanistan. In 2016, while serving in the command headquarters of Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait, Nathan became the plaintiff in the lawsuit Smith v. Obama (subsequently Smith v. Trump) alleging violations of the War Powers Resolution due to the lack of specific congressional authorization for the war against ISIS.