The United States Congress never declared war on Syria, yet leading members of Congress are now melting down about the decision of President Trump to withdraw US troops from that country. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, called the president’s move “a catastrophic decision” and announced that “We in this Congress and we as a nation will be dealing with the consequences for years to come.” Labeling the president’s decision “a huge Obama-like mistake,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Republican majority on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is suddenly all excited about the system of checks and balances that he has spent the last two years dismantling.
“I want a hearing. I want oversight,” announced Graham. “This is a Republican president who I try to work with and I like him but he can’t be immune from oversight.”
Seriously? These guys want congressional oversight for the decision to withdraw troops from a conflict to which those troops were dispatched without the formal congressional authorization that is required by the Constitution?
Rubio and Graham, onetime rivals of the president who have since emerged as two of Trump’s more ambitious apologists (especially when it comes to right-wing social engineering on the home front), have picked an odd moment at which to dissent.
There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical about Donald Trump’s motivations, especially for a move that has been most enthusiastically received by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There’s nothing wrong with expressing concern about his timing and his chaotic and consistent approach. And there’s nothing wrong with sensing an ominous turn in the decision of Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign next years over his many differences with this president—including the Syria decision and an expected reduction in the US troop presence in Afghanistan.
Worrying about why and how Trump does what he does is wise, and necessary, especially as it becomes ever more likely that the president and his inner circle will face an accountability moment for their high crimes and misdemeanors. As Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan (D-WI) notes, “The president has shown pretty dismal skills of analysis and judgement and takes credit often for things that haven’t happened yet.”
But concerns about how the man who is in charge of the executive branch must be balanced with an equal concern for the failure of the legislative branch to provide oversight before bombing missions are launched and interventions are ordered.
“We want to return troops home from lots of different places. We want to see a defense budget that gets significantly trimmed back,” says Pocan, one of the most serious and consistent advocates for the extraction of US troops from a fight that was neither properly authorized nor clearly defined by Congress. With regard to the president’s latest announcement, he offers a nuanced take that sticks to principle while recognizing all the concerns about Trump’s maddeningly self-absorbed approach to foreign and domestic policy choices.
“Where this could have been something that’s very positive—because it’s time to not be involved in every single place on the planet—I have just a little bit of hesitation because this president’s given us no reason to have any trust in his decisions,” says Pocan.
Congressman Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who has frequently worked with Pocan in efforts to reassert the role of Congress as a check and balance on presidential decisions to send troops abroad, struck a similar tone. “The withdrawal of troops from Syria is a good first step toward ending our policy of interventionism,” explained Khanna, “but we also need to: End US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Withdraw our troops from Afghanistan. Repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.”
The most ardent advocate for repeal of the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was approved in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and has since been used by successive presidents as an excuse for bombing campaigns and interventions has been Congresswoman Barbara Lee. The California Democrat who cast the sole vote against the AUMF in 2001 has been an ardent critic of President Trump’s failure to consult with Congress before authorizing military actions in Syria. Lee is pleased that US troops are now coming home, but she says withdrawals must be coupled with an internationalist commitment to humanitarian aid and diplomacy—explaining that
For years I have been sounding the alarm on our ever-expanding military operations abroad, which have been conducted without any congressional oversight or clear foreign-policy objectives. I have long called for the end of U.S. military operations in Syria and a withdrawal of troops, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to bring these endless wars to a close
However, as we draw down our military role in Syria, the U.S. must redouble our diplomatic negotiations to broker peace in the region. President Trump should not be celebrating walking away from a humanitarian crisis—especially one that the United States helped to create. Now more than ever, Congress must live up to its constitutional duty to debate and vote on our wars around the world and develop a comprehensive foreign policy agenda that advances peace and human rights. Congress must also provide robust oversight over President Trump’s ongoing military operations and foreign policy, Our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives in service to our nation—Congress owes it to them to seriously examine the costs and consequences of the wars we send them to fight.
“We MUST end these unauthorized wars,” says Lee, “but the manner in which we do it matters.”