Does Secretary of State Mike Pompeo understand the basics of the Constitution? Given his odd statements over the previous few weeks, you wouldn’t be the only one to ask this question.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 10, Pompeo suggested that the 18-year-old authorization for the use of military force against al Qaeda and the Taliban could be used as legal cover for a hypothetical military attack on Iran. The query was initiated by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who was dumbfounded at Pompeo’s unwillingness to admit the obvious: No, an authorization against al Qaeda does not permit the Trump administration to start dropping bombs on Tehran.
Even a C grade constitutional law student from a C grade law school would be able to answer the question in about five seconds. Pompeo, however, didn’t. Instead, he stated that he would “prefer to just leave that to lawyers.”
Then, this weekend, Pompeo committed another gaffe that exposed his lack of comprehension about how war is initiated in this country. Asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether the administration would use military intervention in Venezuela without congressional approval, Pompeo again chose to obfuscate. “I don’t want to speak to that,” he told ABC’s Jon Karl. “The president has his full range of Article 2 authorities, and I’m very confident that any action we took in Venezuela would be lawful.”
Here is the correct answer for those keeping track at home: “No, Jon. That would be unconstitutional and illegal.”
Why are Pompeo’s remarks troublesome? Because they are an extension of a significant transfer of war power over the past two decades from the legislative to the executive branch. Indeed, the trend began shortly after the Vietnam War, when presidents found it easier to make decisions on their own about whether, when, and where the United States will deploy its soldiers into a conflict.
President Ronald Reagan did it in Grenada in 1983. President George H.W. Bush did it in Panama in 1989, using the death of a U.S. soldier at the hands of Manuel Noriega’s forces to justify a quick U.S. military intervention without the sign-off of Congress. President Bill Clinton did it in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq (several times) throughout the 1990s. In one of the most absurd explanations for getting around the legislative branch, President Barack Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel did it in 2011, when the lawyers argued that a U.S.-led regime change campaign in Libya was acceptable because the operation fell below the definition of war as expressed in the Constitution. In other words, it was perfectly fine for Washington to drop bombs on another country as long as the goal was clear, the duration was narrow, and U.S. troops weren’t on the ground — a recipe for gutting Congress’ role in the war and peace business.
The architects of the Constitution must be rolling in their graves at such a ridiculous interpretation. Here’s a quick refresher course for those in Washington who actually care about abiding by the Constitution.
Congress is the ultimate arbiter of when the U.S. uses military force, not the executive branch, even if the president acts as commander in chief. If the president believes military force is required to keep the public safe or to defend U.S. interests, he or she needs to come to Congress and make the case. Elected representatives then weigh the evidence, engage in a national debate, and vote. If the vote doesn’t go the president’s way, then military force is off the table.
To be fair to Pompeo, he is a representative of the executive branch. He wants to preserve as much of the executive’s power as possible. To publicly limit his boss’s flexibility would very likely get him in trouble and be used against the White House in the event a military option in Iran or Venezuela becomes semi-credible.
But there is a giant difference between being cautious and being cavalier about war powers, as if Congress is some symbolic institution with no legitimate authority. This is the stuff of monarchies, not constitutional republics.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. His opinions are his own.