President Donald Trump taught a lot of people a tough lesson about power.

Within days of Trump announcing he was pulling troops out of northern Syria, Turkish forces launched an offensive against Kurdish fighters in the region. Trump immediately came under sharp criticism for “abandoning an important U.S. ally.” One Facebook commenter called the president’s actions “treason.”

“He has subjugated our foreign policy to the will of enemies. He has betrayed our partners at the request of our opponents in-theater. From a pragmatic perspective, you couldn’t get much more treasonous.”

But given that virtually the entire mainstream political establishment agrees that the president possesses unilateral decision-making power over the issue of war and peace, and more generally, foreign policy, how can his decisions about who to define as an enemy and who to treat as an ally qualify as treason? Within the system, as it now operates, doesn’t the president define those terms?

Simply put, you cannot charge the person empowered to make decisions about going to war with treason for not going war. It’s his prerogative. Now, if Congress declares war on Turkey and the president refuses to execute said war, come talk to me. Because whether or not the president should constitutionally have this kind of power — that’s another discussion.

And the fact is the president should not. The power to declare war and initiate offensive military operations was delegated to Congress.

In fact, the whole Syria fiasco reveals exactly why the framers of the Constitution vested war-declaring powers in Congress and not the president. They didn’t want a single individual making these decisions based on their own whim. They didn’t trust the chief executive’s discretion. James Madison made this clear in a letter to Thomas Jefferson.

The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature.

Madison expounded on this in even greater detail in his Letters of Helvidius.

In the general distribution of powers, we find that of declaring war expressly vested in the congress, where every other legislative power is declared to be vested; and without any other qualification than what is common to every other legislative act. The constitutional idea of this power would seem then clearly to be, that it is of a legislative and not an executive nature…

 Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges, whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded. They are barred from the latter functions by a great principle in free government, analogous to that which separates the sword from the purse, or the power of executing from the power of enacting laws. 

Under the Constitution, as ratified, Congress was intended to “define” the enemy through declarations of war. The president was only empowered to execute the will of the legislative body with rare carefully circumscribed exceptions. The problem is Congress handed that power to the president. It passed open-ended “authorization to use force” that placed the decisions about when, where, and if to launch military strikes at the complete discretion of the president. And in recent years, the president hasn’t even bothered with AUFs. Congress let them get away with it.

Congress passed the buck.

And now all of these Congresscritters and the rest of the political establishment wants to complain about it?

Members of Congress need to either reassert their constitutional authority or shut their yaps. The president sending troops here, there and everywhere at the drop of a hat is exactly what virtually everybody asked for. They wanted a president with the power to make war whenever and wherever he pleased. Well, that’s exactly what they got. If the president gets to exercise this power it means he gets to make decisions they don’t like. This is exactly why war powers were originally vested in Congress where the issues would have to be debated and voted on. It was to prevent a president from just doing whatever he wanted.

Donald Trump taught a lot of people a tough lesson about power: when you unleash it, you don’t get to control it when the guy you don’t like has it.

Mike Maharrey

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