If anyone is still mistaking Trump for the kick in the pants a foreign policy establishment addicted to intervention and disturbingly comfortable with quagmire needs, this month’s bombing of Mosul, in which up to 200 civilians were killed, confirms that his campaign promises of “secret plans” and finally “winning wars again” were the usual empty braggadocio. The Mosul debacle, one of the greatest losses of civilian life caused by coalition forces since the war on ISIS began, is being investigated by Amnesty International as part of the larger failure of American forces to take the proper (and legally required) steps to ensure minimum civilian casualties. And of course this all comes on the heels of civilian deaths in Syria and an embarrassing, failed raid in Yemen in which thirty civilians were killed and the target survived.
Boorish diplomacy aside, Trump is obviously no isolationist. He was out of the gate quickly, outpacing Obama in number of drone strikes, loosening the rules of engagement which serve to reduce civilian deaths, and further bloating the already preposterously large defense budget. If Trump’s Grand Strategy can be summarized in four words, they’re “Take the shot, soldier.”
But the continuity with previous administrations is just as troubling as the changes Trump is making. His inheritance as president includes a vast global network of military bases, a defense budget so colossal that no one knows where all the money is, and the legal wiggle room to keep multiple military engagements simmering world-wide for seemingly infinite stretches of time. But most importantly, he received from Obama a populace largely detached, both psychologically and materially, from the wars being waged in its name.
DeFazio’s bill would allow congresspeople to sue the Commander in Chief for bombing without their approval.
Any potent resistance to the Trump administration will have to include a resurgent peace movement dedicated to addressing these structural issues. The only way to stop Trump’s brutal and incoherent Middle Eastern horror show is to force Congress to reclaim its warmaking authority from the executive. So much power shouldn’t be monopolized by any president—not even a hypothetical Stein or Sanders.
The power that Trump is using to wage ad-hoc hostilities all over the Middle East is the same that enabled Obama to become the first “drone president.” The AUMF, or “Authorization for Use of Military Force” was passed through Congress and signed into law in September of 2001. In a scant sixty words it freed the president to combat terrorism unfettered by time or space and unencumbered by any serious congressional oversight. True, the wording of the document specifies action taken against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, but this didn’t stop Bush from using it to send troops to Georgia or Obama from using it to justify action against pirates off the Horn of Africa.
Not only does the vague AUMF grant the president powers far beyond those intended for the executive, it’s also a way for members of Congress to relinquish responsibility—which is a pretty sweet deal for them now. The President gets to run around bombing people and further destabilizing the region and they get to refrain from publicly taking a position on it. There’s no pesky voting record to follow them around for the rest of their career. As Daniel DePetris writes, they have “in effect, buried their heads in the sand, stretched the statutory limits of previous authorizations beyond what the authors of those bills likely would have accepted, and relegated themselves to the peanut gallery rather than being frontline players.”
Forcing Congress to pass a new AUMF that specifically addresses the Islamic State would be a step in the right direction, but wouldn’t go nearly far enough in addressing the deeper systemic issue of executive overreach. The only proposed legislation that might actually make a difference is Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio’s proposal to restructure the 1973 War Powers Act in order to more clearly articulate what “congressional consultation” actually means. DeFazio’s bill is a revolutionary piece of legislation in that would allow any congressperson to sue the president if they believe that the Commander in Chief conducted bombing missions or deployed troops without prior congressional approval. By using the powers of both Congress and the judiciary to keep the president in check, it would go a ways toward re-establishing such anodyne things vital to a functioning republic such as checks and balances.
The AUMF is a way for members of Congress to relinquish responsibility—which is a pretty sweet deal for them now.
There are a few other bills (not surprisingly, the perennial anti-interventionist Rand Paul has been interested in the issue) that have been kicked around, but none of them have a chance of going anywhere without an upswell of public support. Voters are going to have to force their representatives to take back responsibility for the conduct of American war. Legislation is only made politically viable through sustained public outcry.
What makes that such a difficult task is average citizens being deliberately insulated from the effects of militarism. As Daniel May recently wrote in The Nation, ”We don’t want to pay for missions that lack a clear rationale, so the money is borrowed from future generations. We refuse to allow our soldiers to be killed, so the government attacks its enemies with flying robots and outsources much of the fieldwork to private contractors. We don’t want to face the cost of our foreign entanglements, so a smaller percentage of our country is asked to serve, and serve longer.”
The horror of Trump’s foreign policy won’t be as immediately obvious to Americans as his domestic failures. And yet any successful resistance to his administration will necessarily have to address it alongside all the other more proximate grievances. The only viable defense against his overreach is a dramatic rebalancing of governmental power. Resistance will mean changing the presidency as it currently functions. Simply being “anti-Trump” isn’t enough.