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Democrats’ Dangerous War Powers Gambit

Congress should be wary of further limiting the president’s authority to quickly project military power.
February 10, 2020
Democrats’ Dangerous War Powers Gambit
The War Powers Resolution of 1973, as enacted. (National Archives)

In the weeks before the Trump impeachment trial started, the hottest legislative topic was the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which limits the president’s power to conduct military operations without congressional approval. Following the targeted killing of the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, nearly all of the House Democrats, joined by a tiny number of libertarian Republicans, passed a resolution under the War Powers Resolution directing the president to halt further U.S. military actions against Iran. A parallel effort in the Republican-controlled Senate went nowhere.

The supporters of these attempts to rein in the president’s actions in Iran expressed their worries that a rash decision, like the killing of Soleimani, could lead the United States to stumble into a broader conflict in Iran.

But what if their worries are based on false premises? What if it is limiting the president’s power to conduct military operations that puts the United States in danger?

First, the killing of Soleimani was not a rash decision. It was an option that planners at the Department of Defense provided the president last June, and which he approved at the time. Even prominent critics of the president and his administration think it was a good idea. Iran experts Michael Rubin and Reuel Marc Gerecht—both signatories of anti-Trump letters and continuing critics of the president—had each suggested this option years ago, one in an op-ed and the other in congressional testimony. After the strike, Eric Edelman, also a firm critic of the administration and a signer of four anti-Trump letters, endorsed the decision in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal (coauthored with Franklin Miller, another Republican foreign policy establishment figure).

Second, not only was the strike not a rash decision, but the worst fears of its critics did not materialize. It did not trigger a major conflict or spark a regional conflagration. Iran reacted in a limited way, by bombing U.S. military bases in Iraq—resulting in dozens of injuries to U.S. personnel but no deaths. The concurrent resolution passed by the House, which sought to direct the president to “terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran,” seems extraneous, as President Trump never indicated an appetite for further military activity against Iran.

Indeed, President Trump has been more resistant to the use of force than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter—resistant to a fault, in my judgment. President Reagan, without congressional authorization, initiated operations in Grenada, the Persian Gulf, Lebanon, and Libya. George H.W. Bush deployed 27,000 troops to intervene in Panama without congressional authorization. (And, of course, with congressional authorization he deployed a force 25 times larger for the liberation of Kuwait.) Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans twice and in Haiti once, in addition to several strikes against Iraq. George W. Bush, aside from the two congressionally authorized operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, used the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to conduct operations in Somalia, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. Barack Obama similarly used the AUMF for intervention in Syria and the return to Iraq, in addition to his intervention in Libya and the surge of troops in Afghanistan. Both Bush and Obama used the AUMF for many airstrikes in Pakistan.

Unlike those predecessors, President Trump has been largely disinclined to use military force. He only reluctantly agreed to a minimal surge of troops in Afghanistan, a war he is impatient to end. Additionally, he has only authorized limited airstrikes against Syria twice, while sending clear signals that he wants to end the U.S. troop deployment in that country. Facing continuous aggression from Iran, he was averse to responding militarily. So far, Donald Trump has not started a new military operation that has lasted for more than one day, and he has been clear in his actions and words that he is does not wish to do so.

The role of the United States as the world’s only hegemon and arbiter of peace requires it to be able to quickly project military power. Other actors—be they state or non-state actors—that aspire to disrupt world affairs, to sow chaos, or to assume for themselves the role of hegemon naturally view the United States as a primary target. What makes deterrence against these threats, and especially threats from the state actors, possible is the means and the will to use force. Further limiting the president’s authority to use force when needed—and especially making it more dependent on a highly dysfunctional Congress—would only harm the U.S. capacity for deterrence.

It would also make diplomacy with adversaries more difficult. Diplomacy with adversaries does not rely on goodwill as much it does on a credible threat of the use of force. For instance, it was President Dwight Eisenhower’s threat of the use of nuclear weapons that ended the Taiwan Strait Crisis. Similarly, both Berlin crises—in the 1940s and the 1960s—ended with a U.S. demonstration of a willingness to use force. President Reagan delivered a message to the Soviet Union that if it established a military base in El Salvador, the United States would hit it; the Soviets subsequently abandoned their plans. Even President Obama repeatedly emphasized that “all options are on the table” to force Iran to negotiate.

If the Democrats (and their libertarian Republican allies) are really concerned that President Trump might lead the United States into another war, they should not seek to change a process that has served the United States and the world well. They should get a more responsible president. As Kori Schake likes to say, there is no process good enough that it can remedy electing an idiot.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.