President Trump increasingly expresses aggressive language in the direction of Iran. In the meantime, Congress seems to be sidelined. Roberta Haar wonders if we should worry.
In June the world narrowly escaped the first major strike in a possible escalatory war with Iran when U.S. President Donald Trump called off retaliatory attacks at the last minute. Speaking to reporters about the incident Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that the way to avoid Trump “bumbling” into an unintentional war with Iran was to let Congress “have a real say.”
Senate Democrats then introduced an amendment to the annual defense funding legislation that attempted to force a debate on the merits of going to war without congressional authority. However, because at least seven Republican Senators did not agree, the amendment failed; thereby reaffirming that Trump could attempt to follow through with his Twitter threat: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”
If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 19, 2019
This recurrent failure by Congress to exercise its constitutional right to declare war had me thinking about the evolution of this issue and whether we should care that today more power is in the hands of the president than the Founding Fathers had envisioned.
In June, I gave an introduction at the John Adams Institute for Hendrik Meijer, who gave a lecture on the book he wrote about Senator Arthur Vandenberg. During his time in Congress, Vandenberg was a Republican titan who battled FDR and the implementation of the New Deal but who also played a key role in the establishment of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan and NATO.
It was also fascinating to read Vandenberg’s views on the power to pursue war. The U.S. constitution states that this power is shared between the president and Congress, with lawmakers having the power to declare war and the president the power to act as the Commander in Chief of armed forces sent to war. However, in January 1951, with the Korean War ongoing, Vandenberg argued that the “force of circumstances” gave Harry Truman the prerogative—the right—to exercise his constitutional function and not be impaired by Congress. For Vandenberg, the dawn of the atomic age and the emerging Cold War were conditions that demanded the legislative branch accommodate the executive one.
Congress did try to claw back the power to declare war in 1973, via the War Powers Act, after Richard Nixon’s secret expansion of the Vietnam War. In theory, the act tied the president’s hand by requiring him to first consult Congress before sending troops and then to ask Congress for a specific mandate to keep forces abroad beyond 60 days. In practice, presidents either stretched or ignored the law. For example, Barack Obama relied on the same authorization to use military force that Congress gave George W. Bush after 9/11. As Rosa Brooks points out, the 2001 authorization “clearly was not intended to authorize a forever war against a perpetually changing list of bad guys.” Trump similarly relies on the 2001 authorization to wage war in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan.
Why we should care
It is clear that Congress’ role is greatly diminished from what the Founding Fathers had intended. Does this matter? Yes. Beyond the fact that every executive branch needs oversight when it comes to waging war, the current one needs more supervision for three important reasons. First, the normal foreign policy decision-making process has completely broken down, with the National Security Council (NSC), the main advisory body in such matters, in a state of chaos. Some of this disruption is linked to Trump’s third National Security Adviser (NSA), John Bolton, who instead of coordinating security policy amongst departments, retreats to his office and closes the door. Moreover, when it comes to Iran, Bolton is not a neutral arbiter. As I wrote in a previous column, Bolton’s standpoint on Iran is well known as arguing for regime change at whatever the cost.
A second important concern is that other principals in the NSC are simply absent through resignations or withdrawals after skeletons were discovered in their closets. This means there is no permanent Secretary of Defense, no Ambassador to the UN and no Secretary of Homeland Security. Indeed, the number of Cabinet vacancies and/or “acting” officials in Trump’s administration is unprecedented. Nine other cabinet or agency heads are also vacant. Trump sloughs off the record loss by saying that it gives him “more flexibility,” but it spells trouble for the departments and agencies that are without leadership but who would nevertheless be tasked with taking America to the battlefield.
It is clear that Trump intends to run the country more like his previous business, with him at the apex, making decision on his own. In an interview with Forbes Magazine in October 2017 he literally said, “I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be—because you don’t need them.”
This highlights a third problem, that the methods of his success in the Trump organization do not fit the needs and the role of the U.S. Commander in Chief, especially when the Chief uses bullying tactics as his main form of foreign policy. For one, bullying might lead an inexperienced president to bumble into a war that he does not want and does not know how to wage, at a time when his cabinet woefully lacks adept advisers.
Moreover, if he continues his cycle of bluff followed by a retraction, America’s credibility suffers, even perhaps inviting additional belligerent behavior on the part of America’s enemies who are no longer afraid. Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “I have always been fond of the West African proverb: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” However, in the wake of Trump’s abrupt pullback on Iran, plenty of commentators have pointed out that his pattern so far has been the opposite: speak with high voltage threats and then wield a tiny twig or no stick at all. Foreign adversaries have surely noted that Trump’s bullying is all bark and no bite.
War Powers Blues
At the beginning of the Cold War, Senator Vandenberg did not think that the constitutional question of which branch should wage war could ever be settled satisfactorily. Instead, he argued for a “rule of conduct” based on consultation between the executive and Congress. However, what do you do when the executive revels in the fact that it is unpredictable, that it does not play by any rules, that its main foreign policy tool is intimidation and the chief executive has contempt for his own national security personnel? If Senator Vandenberg were alive today, he would say it does matter that Congress cannot stop Trump going to war against Iran.