Symposium | Trump Vs. Democracy

Circumventing Congress’s War Powers

By Matthew Duss

Tagged DemocracyDonald TrumpForeign PolicyMiddle EastRacismWar

It’s strange to remember that just few months ago, in January, the United States and Iran were on the brink of open war as a consequence of the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis—a significant escalation in a cycle that Donald Trump started when he withdrew in May 2018 from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama Administration. Iran responded to Soleimani’s assassination with a missile attack on Iraq’s Ayn Al Asad airbase, where U.S. troops are stationed. After initially denying that there were any U.S. injuries, the Administration eventually admitted there were 110.

Faced with the prospect of another major war, Trump backed down, even while claiming unconvincingly to have “reestablished deterrence.” It is very much worth reflecting on the fact that even a President as incompetent and careless as Trump was able, on his own, to bring our country to the precipice of yet another disastrous conflict in the Middle East with barely any congressional consultation at all, let alone the congressional authorization our Constitution requires. Even as he has claimed that “great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump has continued those wars, increased the number of troops in the region, loosened restrictions on airstrikes, and aggressively stretched and redefined executive war-making authorities to an absurd degree.

He has also blown through the few democratic checks on his power that Congress has been willing to enforce, ignoring congressional disapproval of arms sales to Saudi Arabia by declaring a transparently false “emergency.” Probably the most glaring examples of his rejection of democratic constraints was his April 2019 veto of the Yemen War Powers Resolution ordering the end of U.S. support for the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis (and potentially exposed U.S. officials to charges of war crimes, according to a recent New York Times report). The passage of that resolution marked the first time in history that Congress had utilized the mechanisms laid out in the 1973 War Powers Resolution to order the withdrawal of U.S. forces from an engagement that Congress had not authorized. It also represented perhaps the only genuinely bipartisan congressional foreign policy achievement during the Trump presidency. This mattered not at all to Trump, who vetoed it and carried on.

As he abuses executive power to undermine our democracy, it’s important to understand that Trump has been steaming down tracks that have been laid down over many years, by administrations of both parties. While Trump has acted as an accelerant of the worst trends in our political system, he is a product of, not a break from, the status quo.

Our country has essentially been on a permanent war footing since 9/11. Today, we’re at war in at least seven countries (that the Administration acknowledges) based on congressional authorizations passed in 2001 (after the September 11 attacks) and 2002 (for the Iraq war). According to a study by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, all told, the bill for our post-9/11 wars will be almost $6 trillion. What has this purchased? A series of military interventions that have massively destabilized the Middle East, led to staggering death tolls, millions of refugees, and the further entrenchment of corrupt authoritarian regimes. And after all this, according to a 2018 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Despite nearly two decades of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations, there are nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants today as there were on September 11, 2001.”

Importantly, not only has the global war on terror been a disaster in terms of human, strategic, and financial costs, it has contributed to the corrosion of our own politics in ways that are becoming much clearer, especially amid the protests that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the absurdly militarized police response to them. Minority communities have faced the brunt of this, as heavily equipped police forces patrol their neighborhoods like occupying armies, using surplus tactical equipment. The relentless fear mongering about terrorism by our elected leaders, pundits, and cable news talking heads inevitably resulted in a climate of anxiety and suspicion around Muslim Americans and immigrants, fears that demagogues like Donald Trump and similar authoritarians in Europe and elsewhere exploited and continue to stoke in order to maintain power. And the wars that the United States and its allies have waged, and the destabilizing destruction they wrought in the region, produced a steady stream of migrants for racist demagogues to attack.

Even today, the Trump Administration is exploiting the counterterrorism authorities hastily granted in the wake of 9/11 to go after racial justice protesters. Months ago, many were scandalized when Senator Tom Cotton openly called for the military to be deployed to end protests, but in the weeks after Trump has shown a willingness to do it, in Portland and elsewhere. He has already signaled his intention to use federal security forces as a form of voter intimidation ahead of and into Election Day. This is what the war on terror blowing back on us looks like.

Polls have long shown that solid majorities of Americans strongly favor ending our post-9/11 wars. And there are encouraging signs that our leaders are catching up. Among a number of other progressive foreign policy commitments, the 2020 Democratic Party platform declares that we must “End the Forever Wars.”

There are a number of steps a new administration must take to accomplish this. The first is to repeal both the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that authorized our invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attack, and the 2002 AUMF that authorized our invasion of Iraq. For nearly two decades, both of these authorizations have been used to justify ongoing military interventions far outside their orginal scope. The next administration should introduce and pass a bill that repeals the 2001 and 2002 authorizations and creates far more limited counterterrorism authorizations—with strict sunset provisions necessitating regular congressional review and, if needed, reauthorization—within a matter of months.

The next administration should also commit to war powers reform. Over many years, administrations of both parties have steadily eroded the role of Congress in authorizing, or choosing not to authorize, participation in military conflicts. And unfortunately Congress has let them, preferring not to take responsibility where it can avoid it. But Article I of the Constitution is clear that only Congress, the branch of government closest to the people, can declare if and when we may send our daughters and sons into battle. A new administration must work with Congress to restore that authority where the founders placed it.

Importantly, the next administration should undertake a comprehensive review of all aspects of United States anti-terrorism policy, including the rules of engagement, the overreliance on airstrikes, and our country’s security partnerships with regimes implicated in human rights abuses and significant allegations of war crimes. The United States cannot stop every war, but it can certainly end its own complicity in atrocities like the Saudi/UAE-led war in Yemen, in which civilians are regularly killed with American-supplied weapons, technology, and targeting intelligence.

A new approach must not only be grounded in a solid legal framework that upholds international humanitarian law, but also be based on a strong political consensus—a real consensus rooted in genuine popular support, not just enforced within the Washington bubble—that will outlast any one presidency. Forging that new and durable consensus must be a priority of a new administration.

From the Symposium

Trump Vs. Democracy

No President in our history has presented such a threat to the Constitution and our democracy as this one. In this special issue, we asked 35 contributors to describe different aspects of the assault. We could have asked twice that number.


Electioneering at the White House

By Karen Finney


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Read more about DemocracyDonald TrumpForeign PolicyMiddle EastRacismWar

Matthew Duss is a Visiting Scholar in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2017-2022 he was foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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