The recent all caps threats by President Trump to go to war with Iran closely echoed his fire and fury taunts against North Korea. Then as now, analysts, politicians, and government officials sighed nervously, but comforted themselves that surely he would not actually start a war. But the drama these episodes unleashed hid a bigger danger. The Founders carefully constructed a system of checks and balances on decisions over war and peace, which has completely broken down in recent years.
The biggest foreign policy choice of all, whether to go to war, now lies with just one man. As it stands, Donald Trump alone will decide it. As former staff members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we saw the lengths members of Congress have gone to evade responsibility for whether American citizens are committed to new fights overseas. Given the stakes, voters must demand that Congress not shirk its duty.
If our representatives in Congress want war with Iran, or North Korea, or any other nation, they should vote to support it. But if they do not, they need to get busy taking steps to stop it. Few impulses have driven Congress more predictably over the last decade and a half than the bipartisan and bicameral desire to avoid votes on the use of military force. To understand why, just look at who was voted out of Congress for supporting the Iraq war and who survives there now.
In October 2002, large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress authorized an attack on Iraq. The public largely backed the invasion the following spring. But the situation quickly deteriorated. By 2006, most Americans came to see the war as a mistake, and voters punished its backers in Congress in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. By January 2009, nearly three in five war opponents were still in the House, while more than three in five war supporters were out of office. Since then, Congress only had one decent option to deal with the risk that voters might be for the war before they turned against it, which is to duck.
In 2011, Congress refused to make any meaningful decisions to either limit or support the military actions that President Obama took in Libya. Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed their colleagues to authorize the campaign. But it was clear to us that most senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, saw little upside in voting on an uncertain military campaign in another Arab state, even one against longtime public villain Muammar Gaddafi. So they hedged their bets. The resolution made it through committee before quietly petering out.
Members of Congress were free to give opinions without having to take responsibility for the consequences. In 2013, after the horrific sarin attacks in East Ghouta, President Obama asked for authorization to conduct military action in Syria. Again, the measure passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Again, Congress did nothing. Expectations had fallen so low that many analysts assumed President Obama only asked for authorization knowing that Congress would not provide it.
In 2014, the Obama administration initiated military strikes against the Islamic State, first in Iraq and later in Syria. Again, there were efforts to secure authorization by Congress, led this time by Senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). After all, how could the president base this new fight on a 2001 authorization to battle Al Qaeda? Again, however, the Senate and House rank and file resisted. Again, the executive branch went off on its own in carrying out key decisions.
This sorry state of affairs has left Congress irrelevant in what should be its most important constitutional obligation of choosing when to make war. As a result, the Trump administration, like the Bush administration and the Obama administration before it, continues to conduct military operations in at least seven countries in the Middle East with little ownership by Congress. Worse, the Trump administration felt free to attack the Syrian regime twice with nothing more than after the fact notes to legislative inboxes. Now, the president can issue earthshaking unilateral military threats against North Korea and Iran with little restraint.
This is not a good way to manage the serious business of making war in a democracy. The men and women who risk their lives in the United States armed forces deserve better. One possible solution to defray some of the political costs of supporting military authorizations could be to narrow their scope or give them sunset provisions requiring Congress to at least vote to extend military authorizations on a regular basis.
In the meantime, the next time the president starts talking about war, Congress, on a bipartisan basis, must do more than another round of solemn tweets. After all, according to no less an authority than President Washington, because the Constitution gives the power of declaring war to Congress, “no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken” until after lawmakers “have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure.” In doing it this way, the Founders put on the back of Congress an uncomfortable obligation, as recent history has shown.
American voters punishing backers of the 2003 Iraq war has pushed members of Congress onto a frightening political highwire. But choosing not to choose has handed one man the power to turn the world upside down in 280 characters or less. Nothing will change that until American voters demand that Congress, when it comes to war, stop dodging and start deciding again. Those voters will get a say come November.