If Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution means anything, it means that the president must obtain congressional approval before taking us to war against a sovereign nation that has not attacked the U.S. or its allies and is not threatening to attack the U.S. or its allies. Senator Rand Paul said as much in an interview today, and I agree with him. As Senator Paul said, “The first thing we ought to do is probably obey the Constitution.”
Yes, the commander-in-chief has broad, inherent authority to order the military to defend the national security and vital national interests of the United States, but every provision of the Constitution has meaning, and the Constitution gives to Congress the power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” While I acknowledge there are difficult questions on the margins about the extent of presidential authority and when congressional authorization is necessary, I don’t believe this is a marginal case.
Assad has been engaged in one long war crime since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, and his gas attacks are hardly his deadliest. There has been a casus belli for war against Syria on a continuous basis since the onset of Assad’s genocide, but the existence of a legal and moral justification for war does not always render war wise or just. Nor does it remove the need for congressional approval. There is no reason to forego congressional debate now, just as there was no reason to forego congressional debate when Obama considered taking the nation to war against Syria in 2013.
Congressional approval is not only constitutional, it serves the public purpose of requiring a president to clearly outline the justifications for war and his goals for the conflict. It also helps secure public support for war, and in this instance it strikes me as reckless that we would not only go to war against a sovereign nation, we’d also court a possible military encounter with a great power like Russia without congressional approval. The nation needs to be ready for (and consider) all the grim possibilities and consequences. If Trump wants to go to war, he should take his case to Congress.