Today, American soldiers are deployed on sovereign foreign soil without the authorization of the host government. In fact, they’re often in conflict with forces loyal to that government. This is a condition we used to call an invasion. To call it what is, though, would be to shatter a convenient fiction.
It’s been over two years since President Barack Obama authorized the introduction of U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Eighteen months have elapsed since U.S. forces first clashed with troops loyal to Damascus. During this time, the clashes between U.S. forces and those loyal to Damascus (and Moscow) have increased in intensity and frequency. Moreover, as predicted, with the ISIS threat melting away, the Syrian battlefield is transforming into a contest between the great powers that have a claim to the spoils of that fight. Today, Syrians, Americans, Islamists, Kurds, Russians, Turks, Iranians, and sundry proxy forces are all operating in the same theater, shooting in different directions.
Congress has had many opportunities to take up an authorization that would sanction the executive branch’s use force in Syria, both against non-state actors and the regime in Damascus. It has failed to execute its constitutionally delineated authority, preferring instead to cede that power to the executive branch. By failing to provide guidance to two administrations that wanted nothing more than to avoid involvement in Syria, Congress has allowed negligence and pusillanimity to reign. The result is chaos and crisis.
This is a matter of propriety, not legality. The Trump White House has complied with the feeble and constitutionally dubious War Powers Resolution. The Congressional Democrats and transparency groups are demanding that the White House make public a secret internal memo that supposedly expands on this administration’s view of its legal authority to wage wars abroad with virtually no input from Congress. The indignation on the part of administration critics in the legislature is noteworthy, but that’s about it. There’s nothing nefarious about the White House consulting with itself on war powers, particularly considering the freedom of action it derives from congressional lethargy. Capitol Hill could render this memorandum moot any time it wishes. All it would have to do is take up a resolution authorizing the conflict in Syria that defines the parameters in which the U.S. should operate and the objectives it seeks to achieve.
This is, of course, all a sad academic exercise. Congress has no intention of preserving its authority when it comes to the expeditionary force in Syria. No lawmaker wants to be compelled by public opposition to that ill-defined conflict to vote against a resolution authorizing America’s necessary mission in the Levant. That’s political reality, but it’s not leadership. This president displayed more courage than his predecessor when he explained to the public last year why containing the Assad regime with force was in the national interest—a conclusion the Obama administration shared but was too timid to say out loud. Congress failed to ratify the Trump administration’s approach to this crisis. That was a mistake, but it does not have to become an inviolable precedent. Congress has the opportunity to rectify this error today by taking up a resolution authorizing force against North Korea.
This week, United States envoy Robert Wood reiterated the administration’s belief that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “only months away” from achieving the capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the mainland of the United States. Simultaneously, it is developing a second strike capability that can survive preemptive action. The administration sees these as intolerable outcomes and it might use force to prevent it from coming to pass. Whether that is a viable course of action or not, the president is acting it as though it were. It is therefore incumbent on the Congress to behave accordingly.
Recently, behind-the-scenes whispers about the prospect of a “bloody nose” option for North Korea have grown louder. That would consist of a limited airstrike on Kim Jong-un’s nuclear facilities and delivery vehicles. Because the U.S. views the Kim regime as rational and believes its survival is its highest priority, it is assumed that Pyongyang might not respond to a strike as long as the U.S. broadcasted the limits of its scope. To retaliate would invite a much larger war, which the regime would not survive.
This is certainly a fraught prospect based on a lot of untested presumptions. If war were again to come to the Korean Peninsula, it would be too late to debate the prospects for mission success or failure, to say nothing of the threat posed by inaction. This Republican-dominated Congress would surely prefer to control the terms of that debate. If Democrats retake one or both chambers of the legislature, they will be leading this discussion on terms far less favorable for the administration.
The result of a Democrat-led debate on war powers is likely to result in legal encumbrances that would render it difficult if not impossible for the administration to entirely neutralize the North Korean threat. The unique suspicion this president inspires among Democratic voters coupled with widespread resentment toward the process that led so many Democrats to approve an authorization of force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002 will put pressure on opposition party members they may be unable to resist. These conditions will transform a good-faith debate over the necessity of a strike on North Korea into a cheap political exercise.
When power is on the table, it does not stay on the table for long. The Constitution vests in Congress the authority to legitimize the use of force abroad. If the Republican-led legislature doesn’t exercise its authority, Democrats someday will. If that day comes, it would pay to be prepared. Syria has already gone pear-shaped. A desperate effort on the part of the Obama administration to avoid entanglement in that conflict led to the worst possible outcome: a failed state and a contest among great powers to rule the rubble. A prelude to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula in which political expediency was valued over preparedness risks inviting a disaster that would make Syria look like small potatoes.