On the morning of April 6, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles at the the Assad-regime controlled Shayrat Airbase, in a direct response to a chemical weapons attack the regime committed against rebel forces. Approximately nine Syrian soldiers died in the strike.
This attack — which Congress did not approve — brought a troubling reality to the forefront of political discourse: These days, it seems the president possesses nearly unlimited war-making powers. This past century, the executive branch of our government swallowed up the war-making powers the Constitution assigned to Congress. Ultimately, the way our Constitution has been undermined both violates our political principles and our ability to conduct a sound foreign policy.
In Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton drew an important distinction between the British monarchy and the American republic by outlining the war powers of the president.
This power “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces,” Hamilton said, “while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war… which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.”
By granting Congress the power to declare war and set aims, the Constitution ensured that the people would govern even the country’s foreign policy. The Founders meant our representatives in Congress to debate the relative merits of military action before the country jumps headlong into war. We the people were meant to determine the national interest, not the unelected bureaucrats who advise the president.
Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz argued in his masterwork, “On War,” that a conflict would quickly descend into a quagmire with no good outcomes if it lacked clear policy goals.
“The strategist must define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose,” he wrote. “The aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it.”
The recent missile strike shows exactly how the country forgot both Clausewitz’s warnings and Hamilton’s wisdom by standing idly by while the imperial presidency took upon itself powers originally given to Congress.
Many in the media have noted this strike on Syria seems to distance President Trump from the isolationist campaign promises. On Twitter and in the debates, he frequently condemned Hillary Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy ideas, particularly in relation to the civil war in Syria. But now, he seems to embrace some of these very policies.
“Regime change is something that we think is going to happen,” Trump-appointed U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said in a Sunday interview about Syria policy. “All of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
In spite of this apparent change in positioning, however, White House aides tried to portray the attack as consistent with campaign promises.
“I think the Trump doctrine is something that he articulated throughout the campaign, which is America’s first,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing Monday. “We’re not just going to become the world’s policeman running around.”
To an outside observer, it appears the White House does not have clear policy goals when it comes to Syria. President Trump acted decisively when he ordered the strike, but now it seems like confusion and miscommunication engulfs the one branch of government the Founders intended to act with the most energy and force.
It may be totally against the national interest to become even more engulfed in Middle Eastern wars. The American people hated the disastrous Iraq War, and many foresee an equally dangerous situation in the complex Syrian civil war. Prudence may dictate that we avoid sectarian conflicts and refuse to put American lives and treasure on the line again.
Or, it very well may be in the national interest to force regime change in Syria. The proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction could destabilize an already volatile region, pushing the entire world closer to military conflict — not to mention the humanitarian concerns associated with the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas. Military action and regime change may also very well be necessary to stem the power-grabs hostile countries like Iran and Russia make in the region.
The Constitution gives us a way to determine which of those options is best. The people’s representatives in Congress should debate all sides of the issue candidly, and come to a conclusion by voting on our behalf. After Congress gives President Trump’s military action specific, well-outlined goals, he should energetically and relentlessly pursue those goals and achieve victory in Syria.
Foreign policy offers President Trump a serious chance to fulfill his inauguration address’ promise of “transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to… the American People.” The so-called “deep state” and executive agencies should not determine in secret whether or not we go to war. Only Congress has that power, even if the last several presidencies ignored that fact. President Trump ought to respect that when considering military action in the future.
Mr. Lucchese is a junior studying American Studies and journalism.