We need more congressional oversight on matters of war

We need more congressional oversight on matters of war
© Getty

For all the recent talk of looming constitutional crises and intense speculation regarding Trump administration plans to thwart the Mueller investigation, the launching of over 100 cruise missiles against the Assad regime — completely absent congressional authorization — represents a tangible, visible departure from the Constitution and American rule-of-law.

True, this particular constitutional violation didn’t begin under Trump. Indeed Obama engaged in his own lawless action with the oxymoronic description of “non-kinetic” strikes in Libya in 2011, as well as legally absurd justifications for the lack of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS beginning in 2014. What we are seeing now, however, is the inevitable outgrowth of congressional and public apathy for such presidential behavior.

The Obama administration went to great pains in a 34-page report to lawmakers and a letter to then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerClash with Trump marks latest break with GOP leaders for Justin Amash Liz Cheney faces a big decision on her future NBC's Kelly O'Donnell tears up over video celebrating 25 years at network MORE in 2011 to state its view that, “current U.S. military operations in Libya are consistent with the "War Powers Resolution” while simultaneously breaking all of the key provisions of that statute that pertain to actually limiting Executive branch action.


Under the current administration, no pretense was made, and, to his credit, Trump did not mimic his predecessor in attempting to make a legal argument completely without merit. He simply broke the law, likely making the well-founded calculation that the co-equal branch with whom he shares war powers will do nothing to stop him.

There have been the usual expressions of outrage from the issue’s principled members on both sides of the aisle — Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulBolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran US ambassador to Germany ruffles State Department with budget stand Overnight Defense: Congressional leaders receive classified briefing on Iran | Trump on war: 'I hope not' | Key Republican calls threats credible | Warren plan targets corporate influence at Pentagon MORE (R-Ky.), Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineMontana Gov. Bullock enters presidential race Bullock hires senior staffers ahead of likely presidential run Senate fails to override Trump's Yemen veto MORE (D-Va.) and Reps. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesEx-Greenville mayor wins Dem primary in North Carolina, GOP candidates head to runoff North Carolina reporter says there could be 'new crop' of GOP candidates in 9th Congressional District race House pays tribute to Walter Jones MORE (R-N.C.), Justin AmashJustin AmashClash with Trump marks latest break with GOP leaders for Justin Amash Trump fires back at 'loser' GOP lawmaker who said he'd engaged in 'impeachable conduct' Romney: Justin Amash 'reached a different conclusion' than I did on impeachment MORE,(R-Mich.), Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeOvernight Health Care: HHS issues rule requiring drug prices in TV ads | Grassley, Wyden working on plan to cap drug costs in Medicare | Warren to donate money from family behind opioid giant Dem lawmaker shares video of herself dancing to Beyonce for Dance Week Lawmakers renew push to create American Latino Smithsonian museum MORE (D-Calif.) and Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) to name a few. The bulk of Congress, however, will continue engaging in today’s preferred political tactic of dodging a tough war vote while simultaneously doing nothing of substance while America’s troops again potentially enter harm’s way.

Certainly none of this is new, and sadly based on the lack of discussion of the issue during the last campaign season, it seems to be something that Americans have simply accepted in their elected representatives. After all, most Americans don’t feel the sting of military service during this time of perpetual war. The draft is long gone, and military manpower is near historical numerical lows for the modern era. Additionally, all of the post-9/11 wars have been put on the national credit card ensuring that unpopular taxes are never levied on the public. Most Americans have the luxury of experiencing war as something close to stagecraft.

They see these largely sanitized conflicts through the lens of breathless television anchors outlining the “beauty” of Tomahawk strikes from a studio three thousand miles away, and the diatribes of politicians who will never see the horror of combat firsthand and yet flippantly speak of finding out if “sand can glow in the dark.”

If this has been going on for at least the last seven years, and in some instances arguably the last 60, some will say the blatant nature of Trump’s departure should theoretically make no difference. Perhaps there is substance to this argument, but to me what sets this time apart is the social/political context in which this moment is occurring.

On both the right and left, Americans appear to be waking up to what their representatives are doing and engaging in a way that is unprecedented in the last forty years. On issue after issue, we are seeing grassroots movements activate and coalesce in demanding change, and yet on this issue the status quo remains little commented upon.

If not in this political moment, with this president and this historically unpopular Congress, when is change possible on this most critical of issues? At what point will Americans realize that our military deserves and our Constitution demands Congressional debate and social consensus prior to the launching of new military adventures? Perhaps the walls we have erected between our society and our military have truly become impenetrable.

Perhaps Americans really have decided that the Founding Fathers got it wrong; that the will of one individual ought to be sufficient to put troops’ lives in danger and subject foreign lands to American military power. If so I’m glad I’m no longer actively wearing the uniform. That’s neither the society nor the system which I once swore to protect.

Nathan Smith is an an advisor with Defense Priorities and  a former active duty U.S. Army artillery and intelligence officer with deployments to both Afghanistan and Kuwait. In 2016 while serving in Operation Inherent Resolve command headquarters in Kuwait, Nathan became the plaintiff in the lawsuit Smith v. Obama (now Smith v. Trump) alleging violations of the War Powers Resolution by presidents Obama and Trump due to the lack of specific congressional authorization for the war against ISIS.