American politicians on both sides of the aisle love war. On Monday, an In These Times survey found that 92 percent of U.S. Democratic and Independent senators did not mount meaningful opposition to Donald Trump’s April 13 air strikes against the Syrian government. The primary point of contention that Democrats—and most of the partisan Democratic media—leveled were vague legal or constitutional meta-objections that Trump did not have the “authority” or should consult Congress. But the bulk of the “resistance” did not raise meaningful objections to the strikes themselves.
"A war that Trump has ratcheted up, matching Obama’s civilian death toll in only his first seven months in office."
Only a handful of Democrats—Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.—opposed the air strikes on substance. The vast majority, instead, relied on process demands that Trump get congressional approval—without saying if the strikes themselves were good or bad.
Process critiques over legality are useful as far as they go, but untethered to normative critiques on the substance of that which is being called to a vote, they amount to little more than busy work, a way of looking anti-Trump without the mess of opposing air strikes that the Democratic establishment—including former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her primary messaging apparatus, Center for American Progress—have been backing for years. It amounts to little more than vacuous hall monitor-ism: Bomb away, but make sure you follow the rules.
Just as with Trump’s manifestly illegal air strikes on the Syrian regime, Democrats in Congress and the broader liberal media have little to no substantive objection to Trump’s unsanctioned wars abroad against ISIS and al-Qaida, both still authorized by a one-page law passed three days after 9/11.
This is consistent with congressional Democrats’ total lack of substantive opposition to former President Barack Obama and Donald Trump’s so-called war on ISIS—a war that Trump has ratcheted up, matching Obama’s civilian death toll in only his first seven months in office. Just as with Trump’s manifestly illegal air strikes on the Syrian regime, Democrats in Congress and the broader liberal media have little to no substantive objection to Trump’s unsanctioned wars abroad against ISIS and al-Qaida, both still authorized by a one-page law passed three days after 9/11. (One notable exception is Barbara Lee, D-Calif., who opposes the “War on Terror” on both legal and substantive grounds, and was the only person in Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force 17 years ago).
With the rise of ISIS and the broader war on terror, members of Congress have shown their “opposition” to war by “calling for a vote” on the war without addressing the underlying substance of said war or how one would vote, should one take place. Congressional Democrats like Tim Kaine, D-Va., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took this posture last week, calling on Trump to hold Bashar Assad accountable for alleged chemical attacks in vague terms while posturing as anti-war by calling for a vote they, by all indications, would probably back in any event.
Kaine was one of the first high-profile Democrats to call Trump’s pending air strikes “unconstitutional” but when directly asked on Twitter, his spokesperson would not say how Kaine would vote if Trump did seek congressional approval. In other words, Kaine was politically peacocking over the right to, what was in effect, rubber-stamp a war he would likely support anyway.
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This response is in stark contrast to what Sens. Murphy, Sanders and Mike Lee, R-Utah, did when they invoked their congressional authority via the War Powers Act to stop U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s brutal siege and bombing of Yemen last month. They called for a congressional vote, but all the bill’s sponsors also made known how they would vote in the event one was held. It was clear the appeal to Congress’ authority was a means of stopping a war, not a public relations gesture meant to prevent them from taking a substantive stand against the war itself.
A close cousin of the process criticism is “strategy” trolling. This is when Democratic lawmakers or pundits support Trump’s air strikes, either expressly or implicitly, but hand-wring over a lack of a “strategy,” as Sens. Warren, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis. and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. did, along with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “Strategy,” of course, almost always means putting the one-off bombing in the context of more bombing and building military bases in east Syria to fight the “Iranian” and Hezbollah presence. The “strategy” of not bombing Syria anymore or pulling out troops is an option center-left serious people never entertain, much less promote. Trump’s wanton warmongering is OK so long as it’s followed by a 10-point presentation on how he plans on carving up Syria to serve the U.S. and Israel’s interests. This is truly the type of anti-war rhetoric that will inspire the base come the 2018 mid-terms.
Reporters, pundits and activists need to push Democrats and leading liberal talking heads to make clear they oppose Trump’s wars on both substance and procedural grounds. The latter without the former falls flat—both morally and rhetorically. It’s a common refrain that “Congress has failed to exercise its authority” on matters of war, but this is an incomplete characterization of what’s going on. Congress hasn’t “failed.” It simply knows calling for a vote to approve the building of a train that is already chugging down the tracks at 80 mph is wholly pointless. The reason Congress hasn’t sanctioned America’s perma-war is because they’re captured, with some notable exceptions, by the same national security apparatus as the past three administrations. Any vote would likely just reaffirm the status quo.
Calling for a vote in Congress when it’s part of a broader strategy to end a war—as activists and senators did in the context of Yemen—is a careful, useful tactic. Calling for a vote when one is simply going to solidify Trump’s war powers anyway is at best pointless and, at worst, provides cover for his many possible war crimes.
The problem with Trump’s bombing against the Syrian government and ISIS, and the sprawling so-called war on terror, isn’t the lack of strategy or the legal box checking. It’s the bombing itself. Liberals should, at least every now and then, say so.