It says something about the way we go to war now that one almost feels like thanking President Trump for deciding, at the last minute, not to kill (at least) 150 people—and risk catastrophic conflict with Iran—in order to avenge one unmanned Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, downed by an Iranian missile. It wouldn’t be “proportionate,” he said, and he’s right—though that apparently didn’t bother National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
While you’d never call the man cautious, much less squeamish about foreign casualties, it’s not the first time Donald Trump has appeared that way compared to the putative “adults in the room” advising him. There are several such stories in Bob Woodward’s 2018 book Fear: Trump in the White House. In April 2017, for example, after Trump becomes enraged by video of Syrian children dying from a sarin gas attack, the Joint Chiefs present him with a range of airstrike options that includes a 200-missile attack aimed at taking out the bulk of the Syrian Air Force (and almost certainly killing large numbers of Russian advisers) Trump does the smarter thing and bombs an empty runway. The night of the strike, he calls a National Security Council meeting. Woodward writes that Trump was “unusually focused on the details…. What happens if a missile goes off course?” Trump’s so concerned about it, he demands that Mattis get him a secure line to the captains of both guided missile destroyers “are your guys the best at programming the missiles?” Have we got this right?
True, Woodward recounts scenes that have you wishing someone would steal the nuclear launch codes off Trump’s desk, but more than once, the president appears more restrained and less bloodthirsty than the people advising him, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who urges Trump to hit North Korea, saying “If a million people are going to die, they’re going to die over there, not here.” “ That’s pretty cold,” was Trump’s response.
And while it’s nice that President Trump periodically steps back from the brink, it’s insane and appalling that we’ve staked so much on the instincts and whims of one eminently fallible human being. That is not the way it was supposed to work: “This system will not hurry us into war,” James Wilson told delegates to the Pennsylvania ratifying convention in 1787, “it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”
From the Cold War through the Forever War on Terror, we’ve watched the emergence of a radically different regime, in which going to war is easy, frequent, and rarely debated. Lately, there are encouraging signs of resistance to that dynamic on Capitol Hill: yesterday’s Senate votes to rescind military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s murderous war on Yemen, Wednesday’s House vote to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, that the administration seems to think empowers the president to go to war with Iran, nearly 18 years later. But much more needs to be done to restore democratic, constitutional checks on U.S. military power, before it’s too late.