A few days prior to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) wrote a letter to the incoming president urging him to work closely with Congress on foreign affairs. President Trump has the chance to reverse the trend of the executive branch marginalizing the legislative branch in international relations. In turn, he would strengthen the Constitution and American foreign policy. The letter from the senators provides a path that the president should follow.
The United States continues to be engaged in military action throughout the world on a large scale. These engagements include a wide ranging authorization for use of military force (AUMF) from 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001. Section 2 of the AUMF is sweeping, allowing the president to go after those behind 9-11, and also to “prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” This authorization has been interpreted broadly by both President Bush and President Obama and has no sunset.
Similarly, the United States continues to operate under a 2002 AUMF regarding Iraq. This authorization allows the United States to defend itself “against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” and has no sunset provision. It is another broad authorization for the use of military force by the United States that can be used vigorously by the president with little opportunity for its being curbed by the legislative branch.
As the senators point out in their letter to the president, these AUMFs need to be reviewed, reformed, or repealed. The acts and intentions of radical Islamic terrorism represent a real and continued threat to the American homeland, American citizens at home and abroad, and the carrying out of American foreign policy aims. The litany of attacks in the homeland inspired by or instigated by radical Islamic terror is long, and it is estimated that many more have been stopped before they could take place. An essential part of the strategy for ending the threat of terror is to halt it before it gets to the homeland. The 2001 AUMF and the 2002 AUMF attempted to address this.
However, as Senator Lee and Senator Paul explain in their letter, “decisions about how to define, defend, and pursue our national interests cannot be made by a single person or a single branch of the government.” As the United States is well into its second decade of the war on terror, history demonstrates that this will be another “long twilight struggle” that will require the executive and legislative branches to work together. The current policy regime guided by the AUMFs discourages presidential cooperation with Congress. It invests the presidency with nearly all the tools it needs to commit the United States to substantial military action abroad with minimal congressional involvement.
It is essential that President Trump engage Congress on foreign policy challenges, particularly those highlighted in the 2001 and the 2002 AUMFs. That engagement is necessary to create a more sharply defined foreign policy by bringing the House and Senate to the table in an effort to chart how the United States should work to defeat radical Islamic terror over the next four years. A foreign policy forged by both branches working together will help make sure tough questions get asked and answered about our strategic approach, and provide oversight and accountability that will strengthen our missions and resolve.
Differences between the executive and legislative branches should not be feared. They should be viewed as strengths. Proverbs teaches us that “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Our foreign policy should be made “through debate, discussion, and collaboration via the processes outlined in the Constitution that were designed specifically to reflect the will of the American people,” as the senators wrote in their letter. The process will at times be adversarial, as the Founders intended. But this process of iron sharpening iron, of the executive branch and the legislative branch refining our foreign policy, will result in one that reflects a consensus, not just the views of the chief executive. That outcome will provide a high level of clarity that will first and foremost benefit our troops who are charged with carrying out the orders of the commander in chief.
Our nation needs to have a renewed conversation about the threats to our national security. That conversation needs to stress an American foreign policy that views the world, our allies, and our projection of forces realistically and insures that our troops are the best equipped in the world and have everything they need to carry out their missions and come home safely. The dialogue cannot be in one direction from the White House to Capitol Hill. It must include the president and members of the House and Senate working in a collaborative and constitutional manner.
James Madison explained that ‘‘in no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.’’ That wisdom can be reinvigorated if Congress reclaims its role in shaping American foreign policy, and if President Trump emphasizes the genius of the Constitution. Doing so would be to his benefit, as well as that of Congress.
Senator Lee and Senator Rand have issued an invitation to President Trump to work with Congress to forge a durable foreign policy to clarify and carry out the goals of the United States in international relations. The result will be a safer homeland, and a renewal of the constitutional vision for how Congress and the president should interact on global matters. President Trump should accept the invitation and signal a new start for collaboration with Congress. It would be a Madisonian way to start his new administration.
Neil Siefring is vice president of Hilltop Advocacy, LLC, and a former Republican House staffer. Follow him on Twitter @NeilSiefring