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National Security Desk / Oct. 17, 2019

Battle Lines Over War Powers

Congress "disapproves" of Trump's policy in Syria, for which he fails to make the case.

Wednesday in Washington held more political theater than just President Donald Trump’s reality-TV meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This time it’s a struggle over constitutional war powers.

The House voted 354-60 (including 129 Republicans siding with all Democrats) to pass a toothless resolution of disapproval for Trump’s troop-shifting in Syria. U.S. troops are in Syria because of an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after 9/11 to empower the president to deploy troops against the responsible terrorists and any “associated forces.” Some argue that doesn’t apply because ISIS isn’t al-Qaida, but that’s a distinction without a difference.

In any case, members of Congress want all of the political benefit from criticizing the president with none of the responsibility for the policy. The president wants the freedom to move troops without the partisan and political squabbling inherent in going before Congress. No one seems to remember the Constitution’s general prescription for war.

As political analyst David Harsanyi argues, “If you want to stop Donald Trump from making unilateral decisions regarding war and peace, then stop letting all presidents make unilateral decisions about war and peace. It’s really quite simple.”

Put another way, The Washington Times editorial board asserts, “If Congress is so adamant that U.S. forces should be fighting in the Syrian civil war, then Congress should vote to declare war.”

Back in 2013, Barack Obama half-heartedly asked Congress for an AUMF in Syria … to remove its dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Obviously, Assad’s a bad actor backed by Iran and Russia, but removing him was not going to end well. (For more information, see Obama’s misadventures in Libya.) Congress declined to give Obama the AUMF.

Obama sent troops to fight ISIS in Syria anyway, as a cleanup for having created the Islamic State in the first place. Trump took that to another level, effectively destroying the caliphate — primarily thanks to the Kurds we’re now leaving to the Turkish wolves.

As far as Trump making a coherent case for his policy, don’t hold your breath. On Wednesday, we learned of Trump’s bizarre and cartoonish letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appealing for “a good deal” and warning Erdogan, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

And then we heard Trump make callous comments about the Middle East: It contains “a lot of sand they can play with,” he said. “We have a situation where Turkey is taking land from Syria. And Syria is not happy about it. Let them work it out. We shouldn’t be over there.”

If only it were that simple.

As Victor Davis Hanson outlines in a must-read column on this difficult subject, the situation with Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds is very complicated.

From our perspective, that means the commander-in-chief should spend more time laying out his case instead of insulting just about everyone in an effort to simply make the “right” people mad.

On a final note, Mark Alexander argues, “One underreported factor here is the sequence of events. The Turks have long planned to come across the border to hit the Kurdish YPG and PKK and establish a resettlement zone for refugees. I believe they gave Trump advance notice of their impending operations. Rather than threaten a counter-offensive against a NATO member (not an option) Trump removed our advisers from the line of fire. By contrast, the prevailing narrative is that the Turkish offensive was the result of Trump’s removal of what were, in effect, a small number of human military shields protecting Kurds along the Turkey/Syria border. But I don’t think it was a bluff on Turkey’s part. Let me take a wild shot here and suggest that, because of a myriad of other strategic implications, most of which are never black and white, Trump actually signed off on this plan.”

(Edited.)

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