Amid the general, bipartisan enthusiasm for the president’s decision to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base, I worry that we have lost sight of an important principle.
The president made the decision on his own. Congress stood by like a Sunday afternoon crowd at Wimbledon, a spectator but not a player, politely cheering the volley from the sidelines. (Good shot!) This is not the role the Constitution assigned to it.
Don’t get me wrong. If I were a member of Congress, I would vote for what we did with enthusiasm. President Bashar Assad’s government bombed innocent women and children in the town of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas, in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has signed.
This happened on a larger scale in 2013 and President Barack Obama, after consultation with a reluctant Congress, refrained from retaliation in return for Syria’s agreement to destroy its chemical stockpile. It made humanitarian, political and military sense to take military action this time.
But the Constitution, while it makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces, expressly delegates to Congress the power to declare war. This means all wars, big and small. The War Powers Resolution passed by Congress in 1973 requires the president to consult with Congress “in every possible instance … before introducing (our) armed forces into hostilities,” and to get its approval within 60 days.
This habit of presidential war making isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, had his war in Vietnam. President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, bombed Afghanistan and Sudan three days after admitting to an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
It’s rather an executive/legislative thing. James Madison put it this way: “The Constitution supposes, what the history of all governments demonstrates, that the executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the legislature.”
There is wisdom in doing this. In the first place, we all want peace to be the natural state of affairs. Putting up multiple hurdles before we can commit to conflict, like a requirement that the House and Senate consent to the president’s wishes, helps preserve the peace.
Here is a second point. The Congress is the most representative and accountable branch of the federal government. When the bills start coming in for the wars we wage — our sons and daughters maimed and dead — we need to have the whole country committed to the cause.
The design of the Constitution, Vice Adm. James Stockdale once said, “protect(s) our fighting men from shedding blood in pointless exercises while a dissenting Congress strangle(s) the effort.”
Here is a third. Armed conflict is a great moral calamity, even when it is fought by a volunteer army. Deciding when to kill another country’s people, and on what provocation, is a weighty ethical matter.
It is no slander of President Donald Trump to say that we should not entrust that judgment to his unsupported moral instincts. I would say the same of any president in my lifetime, and I have admired several of them greatly.
Restoring the appropriate balance of power in these decisions requires the cooperation of both elected branches. It is wrong for the president to act without involving Congress, as President Trump did.
But when President Obama asked Congress to authorize a similar decision in 2013, Congress failed to back him. President Obama was then forced to pursue a diplomatic solution, and criticized for allowing Syria to cross a “red line” he had drawn against the use of chemical weapons.
Congress needs to accept its responsibility in these cases. And the president needs to recognize it.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington. Catholic University’s website is www.cua.edu.