Even though President Donald Trump believes it proper to bomb Syria, a country that has done us no harm, he has no constitutional authority to do so. Because weak Congresses have not punished previous presidents, both Democrat and Republican, when they did the same, it does not make the action constitutional. Despite compelling humanitarian reasons justifying the action, the gassing of children with sarin gas presumably by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, we lack the treasure and ability to be the policeman of the world. Where would it end? Most of the world has dictators and tyrants as leaders. We would never be able to stop bombing someone.
The ability to make and fund war was clearly denied the president in the U.S. Constitution because he “had the most propensity for war,” as Founder James Madison argued. The Constitution said only Congress has the right “to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal and make rules concerning captures on land and water.” War requires the blood of our young warriors, and this decision requires the permission of the people who are required to be the fodder for such response. Only the people’s representatives can “provide and maintain a navy or make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces” and for “calling forth the militia…to repel invasions.” Only the people’s representatives can “provide for organizing, arming and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States.” Congress is directly responsible for any acquisition of property for military use. All of these responsibilities are listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution and belongs to the legislative branch alone.
The Constitution does not use the words “national security” but instead uses the words “common defense,” as defined by eight parameters, clauses 10-17, just noted, with the word defense primary. Not a single Founding Father would have approved of our turning “common defense” into “common offense.”
Funding for war is yet another constitutional check and is entirely left with the House of Representatives. The Constitution said, “No appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.” Two years is the designated time that a member of the House is elected and authorized to represent his people. So, neither presidents, Barack Obama nor Trump, can expend monies for military activity without congressional approval. Article I, Section 7 requires that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” This clause is how the people, through their elected representatives, control a war-happy president.
The only war power a president is allowed to have in the Constitution is as “Commander in Chief of the army and navy of the United States, … when called into the actual service of the United States,” which is done only by Congress, not by himself. No president has constitutional authority to engage in war without a declaration of war – even if it was done by other presidents before him. To commit our young soldiers to potential death unilaterally is not a presidential power, and doing so should be an impeachable offense. If the executive branch can effectively remove this power from Congress, giving it to itself, we are close to losing the rest of the Constitution as well.
In the Obama administration, Congress was not consulted when American planes bombed Libya in 2011 and 2015, or when he authorized drone strikes in several Middle-Eastern countries from 2013 to 2016, which killed designated individuals—all such actions have been considered acts of war traditionally. Certainly these acts would be treated as such were they perpetrated on U.S. soil by another country. The Syrian chemical use in their Civil War had already occurred, so the Trump bombing strike was to punish the perpetrator and was clearly not self-defense.
The last four presidents, two from each major political party, have bombed the following 10 sovereign nations, some multiple years: Somalia in 1993, 2007-2008 and 2011, Bosnia in 1994-1995, Sudan in 1998, Afghanistan in 1998 and 2001-2015, Yugoslavia in 1999, Yemen in 2002 and 2009-2011, Iraq in 1991-2015, Pakistan in 2007-2015, Libya in 2011 and 2015 and Syria in 2014-2016 and 2017. None of these bombings were preceded by a declaration of war. Most of these American attacks had no specific congressional authorization. They were all justified under national security. Probably only the Afghanistan attack can be viewed as self-defense. Where do we get authority to bomb other countries at executive will? Certainly not from the Constitution.
To protect the Constitution, the House of Representatives March 2012 attempted to place Obama on short notice that the next disregard of their power would be grounds for impeachment. We might wish to give Trump the same warning. Concurrent resolution, House Concurrent Resolution 107, said, “Whereas the cornerstone of the Republic is honoring Congress’s exclusive power to declare war under Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution: Now, therefore, be it resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that, except in response to an actual or imminent attack against the territory of the United States, the use of offensive military force by a president without prior and clear authorization of an act of Congress violates Congress’s exclusive power to declare war under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution and therefore constitutes an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution.”
Pease is a syndicated columnist and an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and to applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 30 years at Taft College. To read more of his weekly articles, visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.