For decades, American presidents have wandered further from acting in concert with Congress in the pursuit of solo power. Pre-empting the Constitution could now be leading the United States into another war in the Middle East.
Last week, explosions and fires damaged two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. When early reports spoke of mines or torpedoes, hawks in the administration, especially National Security Advisor John Bolton, went into overdrive, blaming Iran for the attacks.
Bolton and his hawks have a worldview that supports Saudi Arabia as a brave ally, a la Lawrence of Arabia. American perception of Iran is stuck in 1979 images of street demonstrators holding up “Death to America” signs.
Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution describes the powers of the president in pretty vague terms: “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.”
The power to call the military into service, to declare war, is specifically given to Congress in Article 1. For more than a half century, however, the president has stepped around Congress to send American troops overseas to fight and die in conflicts that certainly look like wars even though they are called police actions or national security emergencies. It seems to be happening again.
There are frightening similarities between the Gulf of Tonkin incident that dragged America deep into Vietnam, allegations of weapons of mass destruction that justified invading Iraq and the drumbeat about threats posed by Iran coming from Trump administration hawks.
Ill-advised legislation passed hastily during the shock of 9/11 gives the president power to use military forces to protect the nation against such threats. If Bolton is successful in painting Iran as an eminent threat, the president could choose to launch a military action.
Congressional approval could be neither required nor sought. The U.S. will be at war again with no end game, no allies, no honest purpose and no skin in the game by the American people.
Fortunately, President Trump seems less than enthusiastic about actually being a wartime leader. He should stay that course.