There is horrifying news from Syria. A attack allegedly using chemical weapons killed dozens of civilians, including children. The Assad regime has been blamed, although it denies responsibility.
We see the ghastly pictures and some want justice. But what does that mean? Should the U.S., already involved in military operations against ISIS in Syria, now take action against the Assad regime, which is allied with Russia? This is a weighty matter, to say the least. It requires serious thought and thorough analysis of all possible options.
Pundits and reporters assume these decisions are up to the Trump administration, that Donald Trump can decide on his own whether to order military action against Assad. That is incorrect, as a matter of U.S. law. Under the Constitution, Congress has the power to decide whether to order military action in most cases. The one exception is in an emergency situation when the U.S. is facing sudden attack and there is no time for the president to ask Congress for authority to act.
There were good reasons to assign power in this way in 1787, and those reasons still apply today. The framers understood it would be a mistake to trust one person with complete authority over the decision to go to war. History taught them that this was dangerous. Our own history since 1787 reinforces this lesson: presidents (like all people) make mistakes. Congress is not infallible either, but it has an essential role to play in checking presidential power and ensuring that military power is not concentrated in the hands of one person.
As terrible as the Assad regime is, it poses no direct threat to the United States. Accordingly, it is up to Congress to decide whether to order the use of military force as a response to the chemical weapons attack or other atrocities.
The same logic applied when Barack Obama was president. In 2013, he was planning to order military action after similar reports that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. As I wrote at the time, such action would have been unconstitutional. More than 100 members of Congress made the same observation in a letter they sent to Obama, emphasizing that congressional approval was necessary for military action in Syria. President Obama decided not to act on his own and asked Congress to weigh in (Congress did not vote on legislation to authorize action in Syria).
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Members of Congress must once again make clear that the president cannot act alone against the Assad regime. The same constitutional rules that members correctly applied to Obama in 2013 must be applied to Trump now. Congress must insist on playing its constitutional role. Unless it asserts itself, Trump will mistakenly believe it is up to him, and him alone, to decide when, where, and against whom to use military force. That would be dangerous, to say the least—particularly if one considers the possibility of unilateral action by the Trump administration against North Korea.
This mistaken understanding as to who decides these matters is not entirely new. Since Harry Truman’s unilateral decision to go to war in Korea in 1950, presidents of both political parties have claimed the ability to use military force without congressional authorization. Presidents have been able to do this because members of Congress have abdicated their constitutional responsibility and given away their war powers—whether it was Ronald Reagan in Grenada, George H. W. Bush in Panama, Bill Clinton in Bosnia, or Obama against ISIS.
But none of this is inevitable. All it takes for Congress to reclaim its constitutional powers is action—the kind of action it took in 2013 when Obama was preparing to act unilaterally in Syria.
The same constitutional rules that members correctly applied to Obama in 2013 must be applied to Trump now.
Before the chemical attack took place, Trump administration officials said removing Bashar al-Assad from power is not a priority. On Tuesday, the White House issued a short written statement criticizing the “heinous” and “reprehensible” actions of the Assad regime—and blaming Obama’s “weakness and irresolution” as a cause. On Wednesday, Trump said of the attack in Syria: “I’m not saying whether I’m going to do something one way or the other.”
It is impossible to know what to make of this, and there is no indication that the Trump administration is planning military action. But Trump’s statement suggests he agrees with the flawed conventional wisdom that the decision is his to make. But even if Trump does nothing, a dangerous ground rule will be reinforced if we continue to assume it is up to the president to decide whether or not to act.
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It is essential to change the ground rules of current debate. As Americans consider what can and should be done to respond to the monstrous chemical weapons attack in Syria, we must remind ourselves that the decision is not Trump’s alone to make. We live in a constitutional democracy, not a monarchy or an autocracy. The framers of our Constitution rightly divided national security powers between the president and Congress, assigning Congress the power to decide when to authorize military action outside of an emergency scenario.
For nearly 70 years, Congress has, in most cases, allowed presidents to take control of this power. The cycle must be broken. It is essential to make clear that Donald Trump doesn’t possess unilateral power to decide when and where to make war.
Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs. His latest book, “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security,” was published in 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisEdelson