The controversy surrounding President Donald Trump’s call to the widow of a fallen Green Beret in a botched Niger operation has obscured an important question Congress is now asking.
“We don’t know exactly where we’re at in the world, militarily, and what we’re doing,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The U.S. has 6,000 members of the military in 53 African countries, including 800 in Niger — part of a French-led task force aiding the government. According to USA Today, the French are headquartered in Chad with 4,000 troops also fighting Islamic extremists in Cameroon and Nigeria. Germany has 1,000 troops supporting U.N. counter-terrorism efforts in Mali.
The New York Times reported 400 American Special Forces personnel are in Somalia to train troops fighting the Shabab Islamist terrorists, providing intelligence and occasionally going into battle. Others are in Libya.
The ISIS “caliphate” was upended with military defeats in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. The U.S. military is now focusing on Islamic terror throughout Africa and other parts of Asia.
It is occurring without much debate, unlike U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
To justify those military operations, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama cited the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act, sanctioning “necessary and appropriate force” against “those nations, organizations, or persons” involved with 9/11 terrorism.
Yet Iraq and Syria played no role in that, and ISIS didn’t exist until 2013. While we understand the national security interests in defeating Islamic terrorism, African nations aren’t linked to 9/11 and the terror groups were founded much later.
The Guardian reported in March about a secret Pentagon proposal to designate certain areas with active hostilities as “temporary battlefields” where commanders could “launch strikes, raids and campaigns” for a six-month period without congressional approval. The Obama administration had used that designation.
Congress may now chime in. “We’re going to have to have” an updated authorization for military force, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who supports a new war powers resolution debate.
Trump claims not to have authorized the Niger action, keeping with his desire to cede control to the military.
“No, I didn’t, not specifically,” he said. “I have generals that are great generals. These are great fighters; these are warriors. I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win.”
Both Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, a former general, have been critical of Obama for overriding military decisions. Mattis supported congressional review in a 2015 Hoover Institution column.
“Following more than a decade of fighting for poorly articulated political goals,” he wrote, “the Congress needs to restore clarity to our policy if we are to gain the American people’s confidence and enlist the assistance of potential allies, while sending a chilling note that we mean business to our enemies.”
The issue extends to Trump’s ability to unilaterally declare war against North Korea. He told the U.N. General Assembly in September, “If (the U.S.) is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The U.S. Constitution specifically delegates the power to declare war to Congress. Founding Father James Madison wrote the executive was not “safely to be trusted with it.” In a 1952 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Justice Robert Jackson stated, “Nothing in our Constitution is plainer than that declaration of a war is entrusted only to Congress.”
Yet Congress has ignored its responsibility, save for the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War and the two world wars. U.S. involvement in Korea was predicated on a U.N. action to halt Communist aggression.
During the Vietnam War in 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act requiring the president to notify it within 48 hours if the imminent possibility of hostilities existed and to withdraw U.S. troops from battle within 90 days if it declined to declare war or failed to pass an Authorization for Use of Military Force.
The president isn’t required to consult Congress if there is “an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions or its armed forces.” So Trump could respond without congressional approval if North Korea’s Kim Jong-un attacked Guam, a U.S. territory.
However, he is precluded from engaging in pre-emptive strikes without notification — the administration did advise Congress before launching missiles against Syria in April — and unilaterally retaliating to an attack against allies.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has stated Trump’s “reckless threats” could put the U.S. “on the path to World War III.”
That concern shouldn’t be disregarded. We recognize fighting Islamic extremism as a potential threat to our national security, but in our constitutional system of checks and balances it is imperative for Congress to weigh in on our military initiatives.