In the wee hours of the morning on Nov 9, 2016, as the returns from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania indicated a Trump victory, a wave of shock crashed over American politics. Then there was a second wave of astonishment in the wake that election night victory: the realization all the power the political left and right spent years ceding to the presidency to shape the American economy, culture, and politics might now turn on them.
One such vested power is the authority to send Americans into war zones.
It has been rumored that President Trump will establish safe zones in Syria; he intimated as much during his campaign. A draft of an executive order establishing safe zones was released a few weeks ago:
Establishment of Safe Zones to Protect Vulnerable Syrian Populations. Pursuant to the cessation of refugee processing for Syrian nationals, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement.
Although that provision was removed from the final EO Trump signed relating to refugees, it seems unlikely the idea is dead and it certainly wasn’t excluded because the president and his advisors decided it was outside of executive authority.
The fact that such an executive order was even entertained raises two immediate concerns.
First, it creates opportunities for mistakes that only increase the likelihood of war with Syria, the various factions in the region, and other countries that have a stake in Syria’s future. Second, that any president can send Americans into a war zone with very little oversight is a terrible indication of how much extra-constitutional power has been ceded to the president.
“Safe zones” increase the opportunities for mistakes that can lead to larger wars.
Yet, the American officials advocating for safe zones fundamentally misunderstand the nature of America’s problems with Middle Eastern countries. According to Dr. Michael Scheuer – an expert on the Middle and the former CIA analyst once responsible for following Osama Bin Laden – there are six answers to the question “Why do they hate us?”
- U.S. military and civilian presence on the Arabian peninsula;
- The U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and its military presence in other Muslim countries;
- The ability of the United States to press Muslim oil producers to keep prices at levels acceptable to Western consumers;
- unqualified U.S. political, economic, and military support for Israel;
- U.S. support for regimes that are suppressing Muslims, including Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir, China in Western China;
- A decades-old U.S. support for apostate and tyrannical governments across the Islamic world, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, and others.
Summarily, the problem is one of regional conflict and American intervention. Safe zones will not deal with the sources of the problem because a lack of safe zones isn’t the problem. Setting up safe zones will only perpetuate the violence. What if an American plane or ground troop kills a Syrian civilian or a foreign soldier? It becomes more likely that locals, the Syrian government, or the foreign government will respond by escalating attacks on Americans. This will increase an American willingness to “do something”, like increasing an American military presence and activities.
An American safe zone in Syria cannot account for the multitude of factors that are leading to violence in Syria.
Stated differently, when all decisions are left up to one person, the likelihood of misdiagnosing the problem and implementing the wrong remedy are increased.
Let us put this scenario into economic terms. If a government raises the minimum wage above the market clearing price, it will, by the laws of economics, lead to unemployment. In response to calls to “do something” about the unemployment, the government can only raise taxes, borrow money, or print money. Any of these three responses will be ruinous to an economy; people will then call for more government intervention. The government intervention perpetuates more intervention.
The two scenarios above both show the dangers of government intervention. In both cases, the central planners suffer from the Hayekian Knowledge Problem. Very simply, the knowledge problem means that one person or a group of people cannot possibly know all the factors that shape all the interactions in society. It’s best to leave the decisions to the individuals or groups who are most familiar with the situation.
Applying this to our question of executive orders and safe zones, the people and government of Syria should be the ones to discover the solution to their problems rather than outsiders imposing artificial boundaries. (NB: the United States government has actually played a role in destabilizing the Syrian government. So, an immediate military extrication from Syria is an important first step).
The second concern is that a president thinks he is empowered to sign such a sweeping executive order because Congress has allowed so much power to be amassed by one office.
Fifteen years after Congress voted to give President Bush an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against those responsible for 9/11, that authority has never been revisited. Presidents Bush, Obama, and now Trump will be using that wide-ranging authority. While a handful of members of Congress made efforts to reexamine the AUMF, there is very little interest in taking a stand. This is rightly a congressional prerogative, but while the Congress dithers the presidential powers and the use of executive orders will grow.
If Congress will not act to defend the constitution then the states must step in. The state legislatures must do so even contrary of the federal government’s wishes – how else is the Tenth Amendment to be enforced?