It may be hard to believe, given all the people American families have sent off to war in the past few generations, but the Congress of the United States has only officially declared war 11 times in our history.
The last time was June 4, 1942. That was when the U.S. added the Axis toady nations of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania to its list of belligerents that already included Germany and Japan.
So the last time wasn’t Korea. It wasn’t Vietnam. It wasn’t Grenada or Panama or Afghanistan or Iraq. Though there were various face-saving congressional actions called AUFMs — Authorization for the Use of Military Force — that arguably reserved to Congress its constitutional exclusivity to declare war.
And it certainly wasn’t last week, when President Trump joined the leaders of France and Great Britain in unleashing a fusillade of missiles officially aimed at destroying the chemical weapons program of Syria, even as it exacted revenge for that nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons against some of its own people.
What the president ordered last week, and a similar strike the year before, was an act of war. As despicable as the Assad regime is, it had not attacked the United States or any treaty ally, nor displayed any ability or desire to do so. Thus the need any commander in chief might feel to act with dispatch, not taking the time to win approval from Congress, did not apply.
Among the few public officials to notice this was Utah Sen. Mike Lee.
After last week’s strike, and after the White House offered a weak argument that it was within the president’s authority, Lee answered back with a strong statement that began, “No president of the United States, no matter party or political ideology, has the authority to unilaterally start a war.”
The bit between the commas is crucial in a country where the perceived need of every politician to support the actions of every other politician of the same party seems more important than any intellectual, ideological, regional or other factor. Witness the immediate support for Trump’s action that came from Utah’s other senator, the lame duck Orrin Hatch.
And that is why it is all the more hopeful that Utah Republican Reps. Mia Love and Chris Stewart also made some appropriate noises about the necessity of a president, even a president of their own party, properly consulting with Congress before he drags us into another land war in Asia.
Lee is right. Presidents of both parties have been largely unchecked in whatever urges they may have to engage in acts of war, whether they really defend America or not, whether they make the world safer or not.
Now, with the Republicans in charge of two branches of government, would be a good, nonpartisan time to set some new rules of engagement, rules that restore the constitutional and democratic balance of power that is supposed to limit the president’s ability to set the world on a path to war.