Even as the smoke clears from last week’s U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base, the future is shrouded in fog. It’s not clear what President Donald Trump’s ultimate goal will turn out to be. It’s not clear what military methods he may use to achieve his purpose. It’s not clear whether he will have public support for the course he chooses. It’s not clear whether he will succeed.
What is clear is that the decisions should not be his alone. The Constitution assigns to Congress, not the president, the power to declare war. Even though recent practice and modern technology have rendered that provision toothless, Congress has the right and the duty to take a role in deciding whether American lives and resources should be put in harm’s way in Syria.
The experience under Trump’s immediate predecessor is an indictment of both Barack Obama and the legislative branch. He took the nation to war in Libya in 2011 without asking for congressional authorization. He also disdained the requirements of the 1973 War Powers Resolution — which says the president has 60 to 90 days after commencing hostilities to get approval from Congress or end the military operation.
Obama did request congressional approval in 2013 for an attack on Syria, but failed to get it and backed off. In 2015, well after he began bombing Islamic State positions, he asked for a resolution supporting the campaign. But when lawmakers did nothing, he didn’t let that keep him from proceeding as before.
For too long, presidents have been able to monopolize these decisions because nobody else wanted them. Over and over, a looming fight has caused members of Congress — fearful of punishment from displeased voters — to go AWOL. When Obama wanted approval to go after the Islamic State, Congress should have passed a resolution granting it. And if Congress wasn’t willing to bless the operations, its members should have voted the resolution down. Instead, our elected representatives dawdled, dithered and dodged.
They should not repeat that spineless performance. Trump would be well advised to request congressional authorization if he is considering additional action. But whether he requests it or not, Congress should debate and vote on whether to give it to him.
The point is not that Trump should be prevented from additional attacks against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who provoked this strike by using chemical weapons. The point is that when the president goes to war, even on a limited scale, he — and, more important, the world — should know the nation is firmly committed to that mission.
By authorizing action against Assad, Congress would encourage members to stick with the fight even if it gets tough, while giving the administration confidence it can count on the resources it needs. By rejecting action, on the other hand, lawmakers would force the president to ponder the wisdom of starting a war over the opposition of the people’s representatives.
If our men and women in uniform will be expected to put their lives on the line against hostile forces in Syria, our men and women on Capitol Hill should be brave enough to take responsibility for that mission. Doing nothing should not be an option.