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The Great Middle East Head-Fake

A Senate vote on Syria and Afghanistan withdrawals proves Washington is still clueless and in danger of re-electing Trump

American troops look out toward the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij, northern Syria, on February 7th, 2018

American troops look out toward the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij, northern Syria, on February 7th, 2018

Susannah George/AP/REX/Shutterst

The New York Times tweet was triumphant, music to #Resistance ears:

On the surface, it was a truly bipartisan defeat of Trump. A full 22 of those 68 yeas were Democrats.

But every Senate Democrat who’s even rumored to be running for president voted nay. The list included Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Jeff Merkley. Sherrod Brown did not vote.

Was it possible that their reluctance was connected to the fact that survey after survey shows the public has lost appetite for our Middle East wars, especially in Afghanistan?

The “stinging rebuke” in the Senate that has Washington buzzing was a graphic example of how out of touch the capital is with the rest of the country, which would like more of a say in when, where and why we go to war.

Start with the fact that the Senate never demanded a vote on the presence of American troops in Syria. Just last year, in fact, it did the opposite.

On December 19th, 2017, Virginia’s Tim Kaine — the latest ex-vice presidential candidate whose face America couldn’t pick out of a police lineup — sent a letter to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-Defense Secretary James Mattis asking about a December 15th, 2017 Wall Streeet Journal article on Syria.

Kaine was concerned because a “U.S. official” told the Journal we were changing our mission there, from combating ISIS to an “explicit new goal” preventing “Iran and its proxies” from establishing a “presence” on Syrian territory.

Kaine cried foul:

If these reports accurately reflect your intentions, the actions you are likely considering far exceed the counter-ISIS mandate and lack domestic or international legal authority…

Summing up, Kaine bluntly asked:

What is the legal basis for using military force to compel Bashar al-Assad into participating in political negotiations?

The Pentagon replied via Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Policy David Trachtenberg, whose letter basically said the Trump administration didn’t need no stinking authority.

Trachtenberg insisted they were covered by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), which he said permitted force against terrorists connected to the 9/11 attacks, but also any threats that “may re-emerge and that may not be covered by the 2001 AUMF.”

Translation: We’re covered by a 16-year-old law that gives us authority to pursue terrorists and any other threats not covered by that law.

Mary Waters, assistant Secretary of State for legislative affairs, said that while the U.S. wouldn’t “seek to fight the government of Syria or Iran or Iranian-supported groups in Iraq or Syria,” it would “not hesitate to use necessary and proportionate force to defend… forces engaged in operations to defeat ISIS and degrade Al Qaeda.”

In other words, the “explicit new goal” in Syria was a bait-and-switch. Trump planned on using the terrorist-fighting authority in AUMF to explain being on Syrian territory in the first place, and if we happened to engage with the forces of another sovereign country like Syria or Iran while there, that would only be in “U.S. national self-defense.”

As a result, as has been reported over and over, no matter what your opinion on America’s occupation of Syrian territory, it is almost certainly illegal. Or, as Time put it, there’s never been a legal explanation for our presence there that “passes the laugh test.”

Having been told off by the Trump team, the Senate meekly got together to craft a new AUMF. The proposal among other things would trigger a 60-day review period by lawmakers, in the highly probable event a president decided to make war against a new country.

But nobody on the Senate Foreign Relations committee believed they could get the measure passed. “I think it’s going to be very difficult to get to the finish line on this,” predicted Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD). So even that pathetic ask for a fig leaf of congressional authority for future wars went nowhere.

A few months later, the Trump administration — changing course from the president’s own earlier statement that “I want to get out” of Syria — leaked news of a new “indefinite” occupation plan that sounded strikingly like regime change. This is from a September 6thWashington Post report citing “senior State Department officials”:

The administration has redefined its goals to include the exit of all Iranian military and proxy forces from Syria, and establishment of a stable, nonthreatening government acceptable to all Syrians…

This seemingly momentous decision was never voted on or debated in Congress, though the latter did not object. Apparently, lawmakers were too busy wolfing down military contractor donations to issue a “stinging rebuke” over having their institutional authority over the war-declaring process bypassed for the umpteenth time since 9/11.

A month or so later, Mattis testified on the Hill about four soldiers killed in Niger in early October. He told Congress the Niger mission was authorized under title 10 “train and equipprovision, which permits the Secretaries of Defense and State to “provide training and equipment” to “one or more foreign countries” for the “purpose of building the capacity of such forces.”

Add Niger, then, to the list of active combat missions not expressly debated or approved by Congress. Instead, Congress long ago handed blanket authority to the executive branch to send forces to “one or more” foreign countries. No “stinging rebuke” there, either.

Yet when Trump decided he was going to withdraw forces from Syria and Afghanistan, suddenly it was We Are The World time on the Hill. Republicans and the non-presidential candidates on the Democrat side joined hands to renounce the executive branch for daring to withdraw troops from somewhere without permission.

Meanwhile, in the House, Reps. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Van Taylor (R-TX) launched another bipartisan bill, seeking to limit funds the president could use to withdraw troops from either Syria or South Korea.

The proposal is an awesome comedy. It doesn’t really demand the president ask Congress for permission to withdraw troops.

Instead, the bill would require the “Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence” to issue a report to Congress reassuring them that the moves would not “would not undermine the nation’s security,” as the New York Times put it.

People who are applauding this series of moves as a big win for the anti-Trump cause must not have been following his campaign a few years ago, when bashing foreign wars became central to his successful run to the White House.

“We went from mistakes in Iraq to Egypt to Libya, to President Obama’s line in the sand in Syria,” he barked in 2016, adding that under him, we would be “getting out of the nation-building business.”

Despite countless insults to veterans — from the McCain “I like people who weren’t captured” debacle to the Humayun Khan episode to moronic comments about PTSD — Trump did well on Election Day in areas with high numbers of battlefield casualties. Some academics speculated the “casualty gap” in key states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan may have helped turn the race for Trump.

Think about what this week’s sequence of events has told those voters.

The constitutional idea that Congress does the declaring of wars, while presidents only command them, is designed to give voters extra input on this most crucial of decisions, i.e. when we’re going to risk American lives (to say nothing of foreign ones).

But Congress has been abdicating that responsibility for a while now. Two successive presidents made a joke of it, expanding limited authorization to go after 9/11 terrorists into nearly two decades of open-ended Middle East missions. We were bombing seven countries when Trump took office, and probably 99 percent of voters couldn’t have named them.

When Trump tried to withdraw troops from two countries, what happened? Congress, snoring on this issue since at least 2001, threw a fit that the president was acting unilaterally.

Members of the House went so far as to propose a law that essentially requires the assent of not just the Pentagon, but the Director of National Intelligence (!) to dial back military deployments. And people wonder where “deep state” paranoia comes from?

Ask the Democratic presidential hopefuls who voted nay yesterday how any of this is going to go over outside the Beltway. If Congress refuses to stop wars and the president isn’t allowed to, exactly where does the ordinary person have input on these questions?

It’s not that voters don’t care about the fate of the Kurds or worry about the possibility of the Taliban “recapturing” Afghanistan.

It’s that they’ve lost confidence in Washington’s ability to avoid making these situations worse through military action, especially since they’ve now officially told us they will not take “no” for an answer, when it comes to war.

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