By Bonnie Kristian
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday to present the White House perspective on congressional war authorization and oversight—or rather, the administration’s case against its use in any meaningful sense.
While acknowledging the Constitution assigns Congress alone the power to declare war, Mattis and Tillerson refused to concede any deficiency in the legal coverage offered by the current authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs). The 2001 AUMF “provides statutory authority for ongoing U.S. military operations against al Qaeda; the Taliban; and associated forces, including against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS,” Tillerson claimed in his prepared remarks. In conjunction with the 2002 AUMF launching the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he said, the 2001 bill—a 60-word document created years before ISIS organized—remains sufficient to authorize U.S. military intervention in dozens of countries in Africa and the Middle East, from large-scale wars like the 16-year fight in Afghanistan to under-the-radar projects like the deadly mission in Niger which hovered over this hearing.
Nor would the secretaries brook any suggestion of a more tailored war authorization designed with specific threats in mind. They rejected all geographic or chronological limits on the president’s power to wage wars of choice. Mattis said he’d appreciate “a statement of continued congressional support,” but any real exercise of the legislature’s war power was clearly unwelcome.
This posture from the Trump administration is troubling on at least three counts.
First, the White House’s view that a new authorization from Congress is unnecessary to escalate Washington’s global military commitments flies in the face of commonsense interpretation of an unambiguous constitutional rule. The Constitution gives the power to “declare war” to Congress alone. James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention say this means that the president has “the power to repel sudden attacks” on the United States, but the executive cannot “commence war” on its own.
Yet that is precisely what three consecutive presidents have done under the overbroad aegis of the war on terror.
There are major U.S. military interventions underway in seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—and interventions of varying size and purpose in more than a dozen other African nations. U.S. troops are also in battle in the Philippines.
Of all these conflicts, only the activity in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan is offered any legal endorsement by the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, and even in those fights American forces are significantly concerned with enemies (most notably ISIS) that simply did not exist when the authorizations were passed. In the other locations, it is utterly implausible to argue that Congress somehow authorized war against enemies that had yet to materialize in theaters of war it never mentioned. Whatever Mattis and Tillerson may say, there is no question Congress has failed in its constitutional duty.
Second, this marks an apparent reversal of President Trump’s past statements of respect for congressional authority. Before taking office, Trump spoke repeatedly about this balance of powers. “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria,” he wrote in one tweet on the subject, adding, “big mistake if he does not!”
For Mattis, too, this week’s hearing demonstrates a new disinterest in following the rule of law on this subject. “Following more than a decade of fighting for poorly articulated political goals,” he wrote in a 2015 article about ISIS, “the Congress needs to restore clarity to our policy.” Likewise, in March, Mattis said an AUMF debate in Congress would be worthwhile, and in his confirmation hearing he maintained that “congressional oversight and appropriations, authorizations, are a critical part of civilian control of the military.”
True, Mattis has never been enthusiastic about an AUMF with meaningful limitations on executive war-making, but his assertion Monday that the power of the purse provides adequate legislative oversight is nevertheless a quantifiable step in the wrong direction. As Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) argued in the hearing, appropriation as a tool of foreign policy oversight simply doesn’t work. “Even in Vietnam, nobody [in Congress] wanted to cut off the money,” Paul noted, “because no one wants to be accused of not giving money to soldiers in the field. So our real, only chance of preventing war is not to initiate the war.”
And third, Mattis is flat wrong in his claim that unlimited war is key to keeping Americans safe. On the contrary, unfettered presidential war-making is itself a serious threat to national security. Paul made this case in an op-ed published Monday, and he reiterated it at the committee hearing later that day. “When we look at this, we want to ask whether or not there should be limitations, whether or not we are prepared to be involved in perpetual war, or whether we're prepared to let any president involve us in perpetual war,” Paul told Mattis and Tillerson, arguing that limited war forces prudence and encourages the use of diplomacy.
To permit any administration to wage preventive war “anywhere, anytime … against an ideology wherever they perceive it to be” is “very, very dangerous,” Paul continued, because it leads to a costly, “rudderless, “whack-a-mole foreign policy” in which Washington wins lots of little battles at the too-high strategic price of endless military commitments that ultimately offer more risk than defense. “We're a target everywhere we go,” Paul said, “and, yes, we can defeat anyone, but I don't think, in the end, it ends the war.” The last 16 years have proven this point. The White House may not be too concerned about that, but war-weary Americans most certainly are.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on November 6, 2017. Read more HERE.