US Representative Ro Khanna is consistent. The California Democrat was an outspoken critic of former president Donald Trump’s unauthorized use of military force in the Middle East, and he immediately objected when President Joe Biden ordered air strikes targeting Iranian-backed militias in Syria on February 25. I spoke with Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Peace and Security Task Force of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on how Democratic members of Congress should respond to military actions by a Democratic president. —John Nichols
JN: Why was it necessary to speak up so quickly and so boldly about Biden’s decision to bomb Syria?
RK: I had told myself that I would try not to criticize the president in the first 100 days. I so desperately want the president to succeed. It’s important for our party. It’s important for our country. But I didn’t expect the president to engage in bombing the Middle East in the first 100 days, either.
I thought it was so important that, early on, Congress take a stand and lay a claim, lay down a clear marker, that we cannot continue the cycle of escalation and bombing in the Middle East that has been counterproductive. Certainly we can’t continue it without [the president] coming to Congress for the authorization of military force and trying to seek to work in coalition with the United Nations under international law.
JN: Beyond the broader principles, there were specific concerns with this mission, correct?
RK: This was not an imminent threat. It was not that our troops were stationed there and there was intelligence that, if the president didn’t act, the troops would be in harm’s way in 24 hours or 48 hours or even in a week. I mean, this was a retaliatory threat, and it was clearly not authorized under even a tortured reading of the AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001].
I mean, [this strike] was against Iranian militias in Syria. If anything, in Syria, President Obama had tried to seek an authorization and had failed, and so the congressional record was actually opposed to any escalation in the Middle East.
We can’t have a view that, OK, if it’s a small attack, then the presi-dent has discretion, but if it’s a large attack, then the president has to come to Congress—because small attacks often escalate into large attacks.
JN: It was notable that several Senate Democrats raised concerns. Do you think there is a greater understanding among Democrats that it’s important to speak up when there’s a Democratic president?
RK: I do! We saw Tim Kaine, who I think carries a lot of weight because he’s a very respected voice across the ideological spectrum on matters of foreign policy, come out and be critical. We saw Chris Murphy do that, and Bernie Sanders did that.
I believe the White House took notice. It was no coincidence that a few days later they’re openly talking about how we need to have a new conversation about the authorization of military force in Congress, and that the president supports that and supports Congress asserting its role. From reporting I read—and obviously I don’t have any information on this—but the reports I’ve read [indicate] that it has given the White House pause in terms of further strikes against the Iranian militia or in Syria. So I think that speaking out early was very important, because it set a tone that the Congress will not be rolled over by the executive branch on matters of war and peace, and that these issues are bigger than party loyalty.
JN: Drawing up a new AUMF is perilous. Real effort has to go into defining what is authorized, right?
RK: Well, John, you hit the nail on the head on what the challenge has been. Every time [US Representative] Barbara Lee builds a stronger coalition to repeal the AUMF, the debate gets caught up in “Well, what’s going to replace it?” One point that should be consistent in whatever replaces it is a sunset provision— that these authorizations shouldn’t last more than, ideally, a term of Congress.