President Trump was right to take out Qasem Soleimani, and the Democrats’ criticisms of his actions are unjustified. But the Democrats and a growing number of conservative and libertarian Republicans are nonetheless raising good questions about the limits to the President’s war making powers.
President Trump’s action against Soleimani, a known terrorist who masterminded the murder of thousands of Iraqis and over 600 Americans, can be justified as legal self-defense and retribution against a uniformed military commander who ordered numerous attacks on American military installations as well as on the American embassy in Iraq, which is legally American territory. Moreover it is an action best seen as a defensive measure in a 40-year war Iran has been waging against the United States. And we can discount the idea, floated by the Democrats, that Soleimani’s killing will provoke revenge from Iran. Iran, like all bullies, whether of the schoolyard or international type, is perfectly capable of rationalizing its assaults and inventing imaginary provocations if no real ones can be found.
One cannot help but suspect that many Congressional Democrats are motivated mainly by partisanship. After all, you heard few, if any, Democrats complain about Obama’s take downs of Osama bin Laden or Muammar Gaddafi. Yet the Democrats, as well as Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, and congressman Matthew Gaetz, are right to be concerned about growing presidential war making power: Even if Trump acted legally and correctly this time (as Lee and Gaetz believe), what is to prevent either him or a future president from acting outside the limits imposed by the Constitution on presidential war making power?
Those concerned with whether the President has too much power (usually Republicans in Democratic administrations, Democrats in Republican administrations) claim that the exercise of excessive presidential power violates the principles of the Constitution of the United States, which allegedly created “three co-equal branches of government.” Actually, the Constitution did no such thing. Its framers’ purpose was to design a government in which the Congress would be the first and most powerful branch. For example, the framers said that:
- The Congress has the power through the legislative process to design the executive and judicial branches of government, determining what departments the executive branch is to have, how those departments are to be organized, what authority (or lack thereof) the President has over the various divisions in the executive branch, what size the Supreme Court is to be, and what other courts the Judicial Branch may have;
- The Congress has the right, through the legislative process, to determine how much money is to be raised with which taxes, and on what may the money be spent on;
- While the President may participate through the legislative process through his veto, the Congress may always override him if it chooses, and force him to execute whatever laws it wants, regardless of his preferences; and
- The Congress can impeach and remove the President, members of his administration, and any federal judge it chooses, but no member of the executive or judicial branches may remove a member of Congress.
Concerning the President’s war making powers, the President is the constitutionally-designated commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but the Congress determines:
- What armed forces we’re to have;
- How each branch of each of the armed services is to be organized; and
- How much money each branch is to get and how the money is to be spent
Moreover, the Senate must advise and consent to the appointment and promotion of military officers, and the Congress as a whole has the sole power to declare war. The President may request a war declaration, but no request he makes is legally binding.
The bottom line is that the writers of our Constitution intended to impose more limits on presidential war making than have been exercised in decades. Alexander Hamilton, the strongest proponent of a strong presidency, wrote, in The Federalist, that the President could order the armed forces into battle under only two circumstances: Within the framework of a congressional war declaration, or to repel a direct attack on the United States. Yet the Congress has issued no war declarations since 1942, when it voted several against Eastern European Nazi puppet states. All military actions since then have been fought either in accordance with vague and ambiguous congressional measures falling far short of war declarations, or in accordance with no congressional approval at all.
And this is what concerns thoughtful Democrats and Republicans alike. They argue that for too long Congress has failed to exercise the war making powers the Constitution granted it, rather than the President, and that if Congress refuses to act, the President can continue to push the limits on war making, thereby increasing the chances of miring us in disasters such as Vietnam or forever wars such as what President Trump inherited, and which he has pledged himself to end.
This issue will not go away soon, and cannot be covered in a single column. But for the time being, we should heed the words of Congressman Gaetz. He likes to bill himself as “the Trumpiest” member of Congress, i. e., the President’s staunchest supporter. He certainly proved himself to be so when he led a posse of angry Republican congressmen demanding entry into the secret impeachment hearings held by Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee. But while enthusiastically supporting the President’s actions against Soleimani, he shocked his Republican colleagues by voting to Support House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s resolution attempting to limit President Trump’s future actions, saying:
I represent more troops than any other member of this body. I buried one of them earlier today at Arlington. If our service members have the courage to fight and die in these wars, Congress ought to have the courage to vote for or against them. I’m voting for this resolution.– Congressman Gaetz
Gaetz gets it.
So should the Congress.
So should we.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.