The Senate’s overwhelming vote rebuking President Donald Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria proves the “remarkable” political alchemy of American war-making: even though Congress refused multiple times to authorize the war, now that it’s underway, both parties, the media, and the national security establishment can’t fathom seeing it end.
In a recent article, Brookings Institution President John Allen and senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon propose three measures that would redress Trump’s “egregious decision” to withdraw American troops from Syria and “improve White House decision-making to prevent even worse things from happening in the future.” Their recommendations are instructive, and they reveal exactly why the same national security establishment that mired the U.S. in the Syria conflict is fundamentally ill-equipped to bring that involvement to an end.
The writers suggest:
No. 1: Congressional hearings to invite public scrutiny and “demand an explanation of how we ended up here on Syria and Afghanistan.”
Congress must exercise meaningful oversight, but hearings focusing on Trump’s decision-making and the withdrawal from Syria are mere political theater. A meaningful congressional inquiry would investigate the process that led American troops to enter Syria to begin with — without legitimate congressional authorization.
No. 2: “Congress should renew the 2001 Authorization on the Use of Military Force (AUMF).”
The legal pretext for military operations in Syria is the post-September 11 AUMF. It gave the president military carte blanche against the “nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
Nearly two decades later the AUMF continues to excuse the president from any need to seek Congressional approval for new wars in new theaters against new antagonists. The authors are right to say Congress needs to do away with the existing AUMF, but that will amount to little if it is merely replaced with a bill that makes changes which are purely cosmetic. Furthermore, the authors request that a renewed AUMF grant “leeway for limited action against new terrorist groups that may emerge under different names and in different places.” This will do nothing to check the real problem of sprawling wars and Congressional abdication of meaningful oversight responsibility.
No. 3: “Congress or the president should formalize the national security decision-making process.”
President Trump is manifestly unfit for office, unwilling to restrain his worst, most destructive impulses, and altogether incapable of making the heady decisions needed for achieving meaningful security. But the enormity of his unfitness presents an opportunity. Only in these corner conditions has the national security establishment acquiesced to checking runaway executive authority.
What is needed most, however, is not that decision-making authority over military operations come to rest with the establishment’s unaccountable, self-styled “adults in the room,” but rather in restoring Congress’s primacy in war-making decisions. Congress must not wash its hands of responsibility by approving another vague AUMF as the Brookings authors recommend. Rather, Congress must assert meaningful authority over specific deployments where objectives are defined and outcomes can actually be measured.
A left response to America’s disastrous Syria policy
The U.S. never declared war in (or on) Syria. That an estimated 2,000 American troops have been stationed there for more than three years is largely the result of the actions taken by the national security establishment. Whether left or right, humanitarian interventionist or democracy-promoting, those in America’s national security establishment simply felt the need to “do something” in Syria. They did lots. Here are three measures that can be taken to redress some of the damage done by their actions.
American military actions in Syria include humanitarian aid and lethal assistance. If the objective was to avoid militarizing the uprising or to reduce Syrians’ suffering once the fighting had begun, these policies have failed. Consider the billions of dollars spent by the Pentagon and State Department in competing programs to train and equip opposition fighters. The State Department aimed to graduate 5,000 trained and vetted rebels, yet according to Congressional testimony in September 2015, the $500 million program had produced “four or five” of the fighters.
The Brookings authors are clear: “Syria is important, but it is not a top-tier U.S. national security priority.” Fair enough.
For Syrians, however, this is a “top-tier” priority. Anything resembling truth or reconciliation, let alone justice, demands that America’s role be plainly and honestly discussed. The authors of unsuccessful U.S. policies must be held to account.
Stop empowering dictators
In March 2002, the State Department’s annual human rights report accused Bashar al-Assad’s Syria of “continuing serious abuses … includ[ing] torture in detention.” That did not stop the CIA from coordinating with Assad’s intelligence services and sending detainees to Syria for “interrogation.” Throughout the War on Terror, the Central Intelligence Agency operated a global network of secret prisons that involved 54 countries. According to an investigative report by the Open Society Foundation, Syria was among the “most common destinations” for detainees held by the CIA.
One of these detainees was Maher Arar, a naturalized Canadian citizen who had fled Syria as a teenager. In September 2002, only months after the State Department issued its damning report, U.S. officials stopped Arar in transit at New York’s JFK International airport and interrogated him over his affiliation with a suspected terrorist in Canada. When stateside interrogation failed to turn up the incriminating evidence officials sought, Arar was rendered to Syria. There, he endured 10 months of torture in an Assad prison before being released to an apology by the Canadian Prime Minister and a $9 million settlement. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Until the U.S. first owns up to – and then demands accountability for – its own complicity in such abuses, it cannot begin to demand accountability for the thuggish, brutal, and violent regimes with which it has cooperated – and empowered.
Provide a non-militarized alternative
The imperative to “do something” ultimately presented Americans with a false choice.
Although President Trump has intensified anti-immigrant sentiment, American indifference toward Syrian refugees is bipartisan. The Obama administration announced in 2016 – five years into the ongoing crisis – that it had exceeded its target by resettling a total of 12,500 Syrians. Lebanon, a nation of some 4 million people, hosts a million registered Syrian refugees and another quarter-million who are unregistered.
By its de facto refusal to accept refugees in meaningful numbers, the U.S. forced its own hand. Refusing to reduce the humanitarian consequences of the unfolding Syria crisis by accepting refugees or demanding that regional allies – especially wealthy ones – host these vulnerable individuals, the U.S. increased the humanitarian cost of the ongoing war and ensured that any meaningful response would always be a military one.
The U.S. will not win the Syrian war, but if the conflict has any clear loser, it is the Syrian people who will suffer not only the second life of an oppressive regime, but also the consequences of ill-considered, incoherent, and ineffective American actions.
 In fact, H.J.Res. 124 specifically prevented the deployment of U.S. troops to Syria: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to constitute a specific statutory authorization for the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances.”