Presidential war powers should be limited to critical, extreme events

January 22, 2020 — by Anna Novoselov

On Jan. 4, President Donald Trump ordered a drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, one of Iran's most powerful military commanders and head of the foreign operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Trump first defended his action by asserting that Soleimani was organizing forthcoming attacks on U.S. personnel in the Middle East before shifting justification to solely deterrence.

To this point, Trump’s ill-advised decision has so far only worsened already strained tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which largely stem from Trump’s backing out of a  nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration. Furthermore, the strike was rash and ordered without congressional authorization. 

His action raises important questions over how much military power the president actually has — or should have — on his own. 

Even though Trump consulted White House lawyers and State Department employees — officials appointed by the White House — when he ordered the attack on Soleimani, he did not seek consent from lawmakers elected by the American people or formally inform them. Ultimately, while the president does have the authority to order immediate defense measures to protect the country’s security interests, there was no solid evidence that the U.S embassies were threatened, according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. 

While it can be argued that Trump acted under his role as commander-in-chief and did not overstep his authority, the 1973 War Powers Resolution states that the president must inform Congress before ordering overseas military action. But there are two exceptions: the president can commit troops for 48 hours before informing Congress and continue military action without Congress’s official approval for up to 90 days.

These two loopholes give the president the ability to sidestep the constitutional split of war powers between the executive and legislative branches; in other words, they allow the president to order extreme military actions that could lead to war without the approval of Congress. 

Of course, Trump wasn’t the only president to test his war powers. Former President Barack Obama also failed to consult Congress when he ordered an attack on Libya in 2011. 

Obama ordered airstrikes on Libyan armed forces to support NATO allies and Arab Spring protesters campaigning for democratic government, whose free speech was being violently suppressed by authoritarian regimes. Although he officially informed Congress two days later, these airstrikes were not in the interest of protecting the United State’s immediate security and thus, should have been first evaluated by Congress, just like Trump’s order should have been more thoroughly reviewed.

Article I of the Constitution explicitly reserves the power to declare war to Congress. Clearly, military action should not be a unilateral decision due the scope and immensity of its consequences.

But The War Powers Resolution’s loopholes allow for one person to initiate and continue combat that could escalate warfare and potentially cost countless lives. Inherently, the problem rests in people’s tendencies to abuse immense power when it is given to them with minimal restrictions. 

Besides that, presidents often do not have the military experience needed to accurately predict the repercussions of such actions. Like all people, they may act rashly, unaware of all the facts necessary to decide on the best course of action. They may forget to truly consider the bloodshed that may result — since they won’t be the ones actually risking their lives.

Optimally, presidential military action should be restricted only to immediate decisions that can not be decided by Congress in a reasonable amount of time, specifically defensive measures against unexpected attacks. Closing the War Power Resolution’s loopholes would help prevent uninformed and reckless judgments that unnecessarily threaten the safety of people — American or not.

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