Congress Needs To Reassert Itself on Use of Force

Opinion / Aug. 10, 2017 11:33am EDT

By Lee H. Hamilton

The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has shown an apparent appetite for the use of force overseas. The “mother of all bombs” dropped on Syrian troops, saber-rattling toward North Korea, proposed deployments of U.S. forces in 10 or more countries—all of this suggests a growing comfort with the idea of putting our troops in dangerous places.

But the decision to send troops overseas requires clear eyes, hard questions and specific answers. If we are sending our military abroad, our objectives and exit strategies need to be nailed down. Are we engaging in nation- or empirebuilding? Do we risk being locked into protracted, unending conflicts? Are we inflating the dangers to our national security, as when we falsely asserted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

And when we do intervene, are we avoiding or increasing the suffering of the local people whom we’re trying to help? No use of force should go forward without reciprocity—that is to say, capable, committed local leaders who fight corruption and try to provide good governance and protect the values we cherish and promote.

The use of force ultimately comes down to the president—or the president and his top advisors— making the decision. Too often this happens without sufficient dialogue, consultation, or robust debate beyond the White House. In particular, the people who have to do the fighting and bear the costs need to have a major voice in the use of force, and the best way to ensure that is with the involvement of the Congress, along with the media, courts, civil society, and even the international community.

There are obviously cases where the president needs flexibility. But if we’re to put our troops in harm’s way, he also needs independent advice and to answer tough questions. I don’t see any alternative but the strict, robust and sustained involvement of the Congress. Deciding on the use of force is the most grave and consequential decision government makes. It is of such import that it should not be made by the president alone, but should be shared with the Congress. Presidents should not get broad authority to use force without limit on geography, objectives, or types of forces.

The Founding Fathers had it right: the president is commander in chief, Congress has the authority to declare war. Power over the use of force needs to be shared.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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