Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Weak Legal Pretext for Trump’s Drive-By Tomahawking

I’m beginning to understand why Cato’s Michael Cannon is frequently found tearing his hair out over Politifact, the Tampa Bay Times project ostensibly devoted to “sorting out the truth in politics.” When I look at how badly they’ve botched issues involving constitutional war powers, I feel his pain.

On Friday, the fact-checking organization weighed in on the legal debate over President Trump’s April 6 bombing of a Syrian airfield, with two essays concluding it was A-OK, constitutionally. “In some cases, people saying Trump needed congressional approval have gone too far” Politifact’s Lauren Carroll pronounces. For instance, Rep. Marc Pocan’s (D-WI) claim that there’s “no legal basis” for the strikes rates a full-on, needle-in-the-red “FALSE” on P-fact’s patented “Truth-o-Meter.” Tom Kertscher of Politifact Wisconsin asserts that: “For limited military activities like the missile strike, presidents can send in forces without approval from Congress.” You see, while the president may not have the legal authority to unilaterally launch a full-scale war, he can—if he thinks it’s a good idea, and assures himself it won’t bog us down—order up acts of war that don’t rise to the level of war: a light dusting of cruise missiles—a micro-aggression, constitutionally speaking.

What’s the legal basis for that? Politifact takes nearly 2,000 words to explain it all to you, but their answers are pretty thin: 1. Maybe the commander-in-chief clause?; 2. Other presidents have gotten away with stuff like this in the past; 3. Their lawyers say it’s ok; and 4. the 1973 War Powers Resolution “creates a process to act first and ask for permission later.” I rate those claims 1. False; 2. Irrelevant; 3. Nice try; and 4. Pants on Fire. 

Per Kertscher, “Experts agree that in limited instances, such as the Syrian missile attack, a president has legal authority provided in the Constitution as commander-in-chief.” But that clause, as Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, merely makes the president “first General and admiral” of US military forces, and does not extend “to the DECLARING of war.” And “experts” who believe it empowers the president to launch sudden attacks in the absence of an imminent threat are in the minority. Over at the Lawfare blog, Fordham’s Andrew Kent sums up the legal consensus: “at the core of the question—under the original meaning of the Constitution, who has the power to decide to initiate foreign war, the president or Congress?,” he writes, “the weight of evidence now tilts so strongly toward one view that the debate should be considered over. Under the best reading of the original understanding of constitutional war powers, President Trump’s strike on Syria was patently unconstitutional.”

That the strike was “limited,” and not the opening salvo in a full-scale war doesn’t make a constitutional difference. If it did, leading war powers scholar Michael Ramsey asks, then “why did virtually everyone in the immediate post-ratification era think that limited naval warfare, as against France in the Quasi-War, required Congress’ approval?” That included the bellicose, pro-executive Hamilton, who acknowledged that for President Adams to go beyond defensive acts protecting American shipping would “fall under the idea of reprisals & requires the sanction of that Department which is to declare or make war.” Our first president even doubted his authority to take unilateral action against hostile Indian tribes, writing that “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”

Syria and the Danger of Elite Consensus

There was near consensus in Washington, D.C. last week in support of the U.S. strike on Syria. Voices from the left supporting Trump’s action include Hillary Clinton, most of America’s European allies, Tom Friedman, and a large number of former Obama officials. On the right, the usual suspects like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham supported the attack, as did most Republican members of Congress, including some like Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell who opposed exactly such an action when President Obama was considering in back in 2013. Even the mainstream media appear to have decided it was time to strike Assad, at least to judge from much of the breathless “journalism” we’ve seen so far.

On first blush one might imagine that this consensus is a good thing, coming as it does during what has otherwise been an incredibly polarized first few months of Trump’s presidency. Finally, you might say, we agree on something. And all this agreement among the people we elect and pay to run U.S. foreign policy might also give you confidence that Trump did the right thing.

That confidence, sadly, would be misplaced. The truth is that the elite consensus on Syria, like Trump’s missile strike, is premature and ultimately dangerous to American national security.

The fundamental danger of elite consensus is that it undermines the marketplace of ideas. A democracy’s primary strength in foreign policy making is the ability to weigh competing policy proposals in the news media. Debate and deliberation reveal the evidence and logic behind competing claims and helps the public and political leaders assess the implications of different courses of action. This process, in theory, helps the United States avoid poor decisions.

Consensus, however, undermines this process by substituting doctrine for debate. Almost by definition, consensus requires little, if any, debate or deliberation. When was the last time elite consensus resulted from a free-flowing and vigorous debate in the United States? The natural outcome of debate is division and disagreement. Consensus emerges only when people already agree so completely on the key assumptions and value judgments involved that the conclusions are preordained and debate is unnecessary.

In the case of Syria, Republican and Democratic elites supported Trump’s missile strike not because they had an extended debate over its wisdom–in fact, there was zero debate before the surprise attack was announced–but because they all relied on the same basic doctrine that strongly endorses the value of military intervention, what Obama recently called the “Washington playbook.” Reliance on doctrine may be sufficient when the topic is how to handle routine issues, but it is clearly not the right approach when it comes to complex policy problems, about which both citizens and political leaders have incomplete information. Though beliefs are useful as general guidelines, they must be married to a careful consideration of the facts of the case at hand in order to produce sound policies. And the best way to assess the connection between beliefs and actions is to debate policy options in the marketplace of ideas.

Donald Trump, Syria, and the Power Problem

With his decision to launch missile strikes against an airfield in Syria, President Donald Trump has apparently learned a lesson that eventually dawns on all American presidents, especially in the post-Cold War era: with great power comes great responsibility. I call it the power problem.

The power problem was encapsulated in the exchange between then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright and Gen. Colin Powell, at the time the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

Relieved of the burdens to justify U.S. military actions solely on the basis of our own national security interests, U.S. presidents and the foreign policy elites who advise them have gone searching for other reasons to use force. There will never be a shortage of aggrieved parties pleading for help. There is, however, a shortage of countries willing to help.

U.S. military power, and our willingness to use it, have discouraged others from possessing power of their own. They can reasonably claim that they lack the capability to act.

The United States doesn’t have that luxury. From the moment when a president arrives in the Oval Office, he possesses vast power, and few constraints on how it is used.

Using it wisely requires tremendous discipline, and a willingness to endure the criticisms of those who will accuse you of everything from callousness to mendacity – both when you act, and when you refuse to do so.

Trump’s repeated invocation of the doctrine “America First” suggested that he would not be swayed by such criticisms. And, in the past, he has suggested that the United States should not become involved in Syria’s civil war. In September 2013, for example, Donald Trump urged President Obama via Twitter not to attack Syria. 

But now, just 77 days into his presidency, he has created an inevitable rejoinder for every successive foreign policy crisis, anywhere in the world: “Mr. President, you struck Syrian government forces in April 2017. Why are you not striking [insert name of petty tyrant here] in response to equally grievous actions against [petty tyrant’s people]?”

In his statement last night justifying the use of unilateral force against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, President Trump explained “It is in this (sic) vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” 

It is a debatable point, and one that deserves to be debated. A new authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) would be a good place to start. There are risks, including conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. There are reasonable questions about what effect such strikes will have on Assad’s capacity to carry out similarly brutal killing by purely conventional means. And, lastly, having now introduced a very small increment of U.S. military power directly into the Syria conflict, some will wonder whether that signals a willingness to use much more. Those who castigated Barack Obama for refusing to intervene decisively in the Syrian civil war, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, hope so. The question is whether President Trump, in the face of all this uncertainty, will be able to resist the temptation to escalate.

If he succumbs, Americans could find themselves sucked into yet another elective military quagmire in the Middle East.

Trump’s Strategy for Getting China to Pressure North Korea: All Sticks, No Carrots

A major issue in the summit meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be the growing U.S. insistence that Beijing do much more to rein-in its disruptive North Korean ally. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” Trump told the Financial Times on Sunday. His blunt comment is only the latest in a series of escalating warnings from Washington. Administration officials have indicated that all options, including unilateral military force, are on the table.

Unfortunately, the administration’s approach to inducing Beijing to take action against North Korea consists of all sticks and no carrots. The fear that the United States might launch airstrikes against North Korea, with all the possible adverse ramifications of such a move for China’s interests, is apparently deemed sufficient to cause a change in Xi’s policy.

Like its predecessors, the Trump foreign policy team overestimates China’s normal influence over Pyongyang and is oblivious to the reasons for Beijing’s reluctance to apply maximum pressure on Kim Jong-un’s regime. China undoubtedly has more leverage over North Korea than does any other country, but it is still limited. Pyongyang has defied the Chinese government’s repeated requests and warnings to cease both its nuclear tests and its ballistic missile launches.

True, since China supplies so much of North Korea’s food and energy supplies, it could probably bring Kim’s regime to its knees if it severed such assistance. But as I point out in a new article in China-U.S. Focus, Chinese leaders have several reasons for refraining from adopting that option. There is the worry that intense pressure might cause Kim’s volatile regime to engage in even more risky military provocations, thereby triggering the very war that the United States and all East Asian nations want to prevent. Even if that nightmare did not occur, cutting off food and energy aid might cause the North Korean state to unravel. Among many other potential problems, that development would lead to massive refugee flows into China.

Beyond those immediate dangers, Chinese officials are concerned that if North Korea imploded, Washington would exploit that situation to Beijing’s geostrategic disadvantage. A united Korea allied with the United States would mean the loss of the geographic buffer between China and the rest of Northeast Asia dominated by America and its allies. Chinese leaders would wonder further if someday Washington might seek to have military bases in what is now North Korea. Given the recent U.S. behavior in deploying military forces in what was formerly Moscow’s East European satellite empire, despite promises to the contrary, such Chinese worries are not unfounded.

Washington Has a Clear Choice on the Future of Iran Nuclear Deal

When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump administration has been engulfed in scandal and intrigue from day one. From the resignation of Michael Flynn, to a botched Yemen raid, to a U.S. bombing campaign in Mosul, Iraq that killed up to 200 civilians, to unrelenting controversy over Russian meddling in our election, it’s difficult to even keep up.

With all these distractions, it is easy to forget that there are important issues that demand thoughtful attention. High among these is the Iran nuclear deal. Not only must the Iran deal compete for attention with other controversies swirling around the White House, it has to withstand antagonism from hawks who refuse to acknowledge its success.

At the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for “bestow[ing] a windfall of billions for the Iranian regime to distribute to its proxies.” At the same conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan described the deal as “an unmitigated disaster” that is “dangerous for the United States and for the world.”

Actually, most of the tangible benefits in sanctions relief have gone to improving the economy for every day Iranians. And far from being a “dangerous” and “unmitigated disaster,” the deal has been successful in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and in easing regional tensions.

The rhetorical abuse visited upon the JCPOA doesn’t bode well for the survival of the deal. And even the relative moderates in the Trump administration – people like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, frequently described as the “grown-ups,” in contrast with the opposing bloc of “ideologues” – seem more hawkish than pragmatic on Iran.

In other words, the Trump White House exists in an echo chamber of negativity toward the JCPOA. The deal’s survival depends on deliberate administration support and a measured understanding of its benefits.

A Tale of Two Statements

Remarks made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Beijing caused a collective gnashing of teeth among the foreign policy establishment this week. At least twice, Tillerson said that the U.S.-China relationship was built on “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win solutions.” These exact words have often been used by China’s president Xi Jinping to describe a “new model of major country relations” between the United States and China.

China watchers based in D.C. rushed to criticize Tillerson’s statements for mirroring Xi’s language. Writing for Politico, Ely Ratner of the Council on Foreign Relations said, “terms like ‘mutual respect’ and ‘nonconfrontation’ are code in Beijing for U.S. accommodation of a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia.” A headline in the Washington Post said that Tillerson handed a “diplomatic victory” to China. The article featured quotes from experts such as Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies who said, “By agreeing to [mutual respect], the U.S. is in effect saying that it accepts that China has no room to compromise on these issues.” In Foreign Policy, former State Department and National Security Council official Laura Rosenberger argued that U.S. allies in East Asia “may question [U.S.] commitments given Tillerson’s wording in Beijing.”

North Korea Policy: Hoping on a Hail Mary

The Trump administration’s North Korea policy started taking shape this week. On his first official trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared an end to the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience, ruled out negotiations with North Korea unless the North gave up nuclear weapons, and said that the United States would not rule out military action. Despite Tillerson’s attempt to put daylight between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, insisting on denuclearization and not ruling out the use of military force have been features of U.S. policy toward North Korea under both Bush and Obama. And this is precisely why the Trump administration’s approach, as it stands now, has little chance of succeeding.

Reining in North Korea has rapidly risen to the top of the Trump administration’s list of international challenges. In February, Pyongyang tested a solid-fueled ballistic missile with a tracked transporter erector launcher that will be very difficult for the United States to track and target in a preemptive attack. The following month, during the annual U.S.-South Korean Foal Eagle military exercises, which North Korea views as a dress rehearsal for an invasion, the North launched at least four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan simulating a nuclear attack against a U.S. Marine Corps air station at Iwakuni. Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey succinctly described the Foal Eagle/missile launch interaction, “If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion.”