This column contains a correction.
The tragic loss of four U.S. Army Green Berets* in an ambush in Niger has sparked renewed attention on the scope of the multiple ongoing wars against terrorist groups. Debate has centered on the source of legal authority for those wars, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). This Monday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on this authorization. However, as strange as it is to say, Congressional focus on this 16-year-old law is premature at this stage in the Trump administration. Instead, what is urgently needed is a strategic assessment of the wars themselves and clear-eyed consideration of President Donald Trump’s recklessness and unsuitability to be entrusted with broad war powers.
As Congress re-engages this debate, its focus must be on the actual wars—not just the legal authority. For too long, any discussion about the fight against terrorist groups has been confined to a narrow discussion of the legal authorities that support those conflicts. Bizarrely, many have used skepticism about the AUMF as a substitute for a more politically risky path of questioning the actual wars, leaving any Congressional action to focus on obtaining a new vote on a new or renewed authorization for those wars. However well-intentioned, that dynamic only further entrenches the fight against terrorist groups a “forever war.”
Before acting on any new war authority, Congress must examine the major strategic shifts occurring in the fight against terrorist groups in multiple theaters. The Trump administration has announced that it is sending more troops to Afghanistan, returning to a war footing against the Taliban. Additionally, the administration is, reportedly, putting CIA paramilitary teams on the ground in kill-or-capture operations against Taliban militants. The fall of Raqqa marks a turning point in the fight against the Islamic State, as the group has lost most of its territory in Iraq and Syria. Big questions now must be answered about the direction of U.S. military operations against IS.
Yemen remains a debilitating quagmire, as the Saudi-led and U.S.-backed war against Houthi rebels there continues to falter. Leaked emails show even the Saudis admit its military campaign has been a “strategic failure” and that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has capitalized on the fighting as a means to gain territory and strength. Additionally, U.S. officials have not adequately addressed disturbing reports of torture and abuse of Yemeni detainees by forces of the United Arab Emirates, sometimes with U.S. personnel present at the same military base.
U.S. military engagements are either escalating or beginning across Africa and Asia as well. A U.S. airstrike reportedly killed 150 al-Shabab militants in March of this year, part of a renewed U.S. push against the group. Violence in Somalia is also escalating following the mid-October truck bombing in Mogadishu that killed more than 300 people. And the Trump administration is reportedly considering changing Obama-era rules governing the use of deadly force outside of traditional war zones that “would ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare to elsewhere in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.”
Congress must assess critical questions about the conflicts, including whether U.S. military engagement is still necessary, and, if so, at what level. Congress must also examine the Trump administration’s strategy for fighting and winning these conflicts.
Layered onto any consideration of providing President Trump with renewed war powers is the growing bipartisan recognition that Trump is unfit to be commander in chief. The Republican chairman of the committee holding Monday’s hearing, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), said this week that President Trump must be “contained” by his senior staff or else he could “move our country into a binary choice which could lead to a world war.” Corker added that Trump has “a lack of desire to be competent.” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), also on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned of the “senseless danger” of Trump hurling “childish insults” at “a hostile foreign power.”
It is simply unheard of to witness senior members of the sitting president’s party deliver such strong verdicts on his obvious unfitness for office. It is even more remarkable in this era of intense partisan polarization to see this kind of criticism of the commander in chief by members of his own party. This goes beyond “not normal” and into truly uncharted territory. Given this growing sense of alarm regarding the danger President Trump poses to the security of Americans and the world, it would be fundamentally irresponsible for Congress to provide him with broad war powers that gives him discretion about when, where, and against whom the United States initiates military action.
Congress must tackle these challenges head on. It must debate the actual wars, not just the legal authority that supports them. And it must deal with the extremely dangerous elephant in the room; that Trump is reckless, incompetent, and so unfit to be commander in chief that he must be contained to limit the threat he poses to the security of the United States and the world. That is the debate the American people deserve and need before any consideration by Congress of new or renewed authorization for the use of military force and what measures it can take to put meaningful limits on the war powers of this president.
Ken Gude is a senior fellow with the National Security team at the Center for American Progress.
*Correction, November 1, 2017: This column has been corrected to accurately state the branch of the servicemen killed in Niger.