It’s long past time to tie the president’s hands

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Bob Woodward, famed chronicler of what Washington says when the cameras are turned off, has titled his new book on the Trump Administration “Fear.” With its tales of top officials sneaking documents off the president’s desk and ignoring war plan requests, the book should make all Americans anxious about what might happen without these acts of disobedience. It should also make them angry about how little Congress has done to keep the administration in check.

Take the issue of war. It’s Congress’s job to decide whether and when to commit troops, yet members have been reluctant to set any meaningful limits. Legislators rely on one excuse: “We don’t want to tie the president’s hands.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for example, announced in 2016 that he would only support a war authorization against the Islamic State “that doesn’t tie the hands of this or any future Commander-in-Chief.” Democrats, too, have been unable or unwilling to fulfill their constitutional duties, allowing unchecked war expansion to new countries and groups.

{mosads}If the framers had wanted a new American king with unlimited powers, they could have written the Constitution that way. Luckily, they didn’t. They gave Congress the power to declare war, to raise and support armies, and to provide for the common defense. Deciding whether to invade Venezuela, attack North Korea, or assassinate Syria’s Bashar al-Assad—as Woodward says Trump considered—is not a decision for the chief executive.

Yet Congress has been completely AWOL in its duty to make these decisions. Instead, it has preferred to continue vague and open-ended authorizations that allow for presidential deployment of forces anytime, anywhere. Not only is Congress refusing to tie the president’s hands, but it sits on its own, hoping Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will slow-walk and ignore Trump each time he demands a new war plan.

Congress has had years to decide whether to commit forces to Syria and/or Yemen, among other places, failing to either authorize or prohibit direct participation. This abdication of responsibility leaves the president free to act and Congress free to criticize, an arrangement that does not serve the American people. In the absence of meaningful oversight, the retaliation Congress authorized post-9/11 has become an endless global war, with the United States bombing and deploying troops in at least eight countries. There is no realistic strategy for winning, little evidence the current approach is working, and insufficient investment in nonviolent alternatives.

Congress should start by revoking the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for military force. These measures have been so stretched and contorted that they now qualify as blank checks, justifying military interventions never approved by and largely unknown to the American people. If President Trump truly believes circumstances demand using force, he needs to make the case to the public and obtain congressional approval on a country-by-country basis.

More fundamentally, Congress must make it clear that no president may ever embroil the nation in an armed conflict without explicit approval and that funding will not be provided for unauthorized military operations. Leaving the fate of millions to the whims of a single individual is dangerously destabilizing.

In the end, Congress must be the one to tie the president’s hands. For as America’s founders knew, resistance is too important a job to be left to all the president’s men.

Diana Ohlbaum is Legislative Director for Foreign Policy and Anthony Wier is Legislative Secretary for Nuclear Disarmament and Pentagon Spending at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Follow Diana on Twitter @dohlbaum. Follow Anthony on Twitter @antwier.

Tags Donald Trump James Mattis Mitch McConnell President of the United States United States war powers

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