President Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy has roiled world capitals and the halls of Congress, leaving the national-security establishment bunkered down at think tanks across D.C. Whether threatening to preventively strike North Korea or unilaterally overhauling our long-standing NATO alliance, President Trump’s assault on conventional thinking has increased interest in checking presidential power.
When a “bloody nose” strike against the Kim regime was contemplated earlier this year, 18 Democratic senators wrote to President Trump asserting that “without congressional authority, a preventative or preemptive U.S. military strike would lack either a constitutional basis or legal authority.”
But the wisdom of congressional checks on executive war-making isn’t new; in fact, it’s embedded in the Constitution. Indeed, five years ago this week, Americans and Britons witnessed firsthand the significance of their representative bodies’ taking a stand on matters of war and peace.
August 31 marks the fifth anniversary of President Barack Obama’s Rose Garden request for Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Powerful constituencies in Washington and London were agitating against Assad, weighing slap-on-the-wrist airstrikes against full-bore regime change. As August’s end approached, it looked like the U.S. and its allies were again on the march to war.
Of course, the fate of the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya — not to mention “forever war” failures in Iraq and Afghanistan — gave elected officials pause. The difficulties of achieving significant objectives in Syria with or without a major military intervention were obvious, and the likelihood of getting stuck in another quagmire was high.
Which is precisely why the events that unfolded next offer a signal example of the importance legislatures can and should play in foreign policy.
The drums of war were first dampened by the British Parliament’s rebuke of Prime Minister David Cameron. On Aug. 29, 2013, the House of Commons voted down a resolution that would have moved the British closer to authorizing military action. Having already watered down the proposed motion to conciliate skeptics, Cameron demurred, stating that Parliament had rejected the call to action and “the government will act accordingly.”
Undeterred, the Obama administration pressed forward, with Secretary of State John Kerry making the case for military action and the president calling for Congress to approve the use of force. However, while the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10–7 to approve U.S. military action, the House of Representatives announced its opposition. In a letter authored by Representative Scott Rigell (R., Va.), 98 Republicans and 18 Democratic members argued:
While the Founders wisely gave the Office of the President the authority to act in emergencies, they foresaw the need to ensure public debate — and the active engagement of Congress — prior to committing U.S. military assets. Engaging our military in Syria when no direct threat to the United States exists and without prior congressional authorization would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution.
That President Obama was unlikely to receive their blessing was implicit in their message.
The signatories were backed by broad public support. In the month that followed the August 21 Ghouta chemical attack, the Washington Post and ABC News conducted three surveys to gauge American attitudes about retaliatory actions. When the final poll, published September 20, asked respondents whether the U.S. should launch missile strikes, the 61 percent who opposed military action outstripped advocates by a two-to-one margin. This reckoning wasn’t partisan. A plurality of respondents said they trusted the president more than House Republicans to manage the situation effectively. However tragic the unfolding conflict, a majority of Americans didn’t think their country’s vital interests were at stake in Syria’s civil war. Their elected officials responded accordingly.
After Russia defused the crisis by agreeing to remove Syrian chemical weapons, Politico reported that “the pressure of a high-stakes vote had intensified as it became increasingly clear that President Barack Obama would lose in the House and faced an uphill battle in the Senate.” Despite assurances that military operations would be “limited in duration and scope,” the president was unable to generate sufficient public trust or even the full support of his party. Ultimately, like Cameron, he capitulated.
As we recall this rare check on expansive executive powers five years on, we’d be wise to encourage more vigorous public debate about America’s obligations abroad and Congress’s responsibilities at home. There’s good reason the Founders put war powers firmly in the hands of our elected representatives: Deliberation, constituent input, and the slower pace of the legislative process can lead to greater wisdom in ruling.
William Ruger is vice president of research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and a veteran of the Afghanistan War. Reid Smith manages foreign policy initiatives at the Charles Koch Institute. He covered the drawdown of American military forces in Iraq for the Foreign Policy Association.