President Donald Trump is dismantling order in America. Rules and practices are cast aside, and it is up to Congress to align other organs of government to temper the chaos.
In October 2017, in a display of military posturing not regularly seen in the United States, President Trump stood among a coterie of generals warning of “the calm before the storm.” Recent events may be prologue to a reporter’s question following President Trump’s strange remark, “What’s the storm?” In the legally questionable January 2020 killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the president may have indicated where the storm will make landfall.
Why take such drastic action such as killing the highest-profile military figure of a hostile adversary? As an ordinary citizen, Trump had regularly beaten back all controversy thrown at him, becoming emboldened by victories. Now occupying the most powerful office in the world, Trump’s instruments of dealmaking have transcended from his usual lawsuit to now include threats with a nuclear arsenal. In early May, Trump decried as insulting a bill he vetoed that would have limited unilateral executive action against Iran. He has shaped a new paradigm of dealmaking with his office as a tool. The President boasts of the might of the U.S. military at his disposal, threatening escalation if Iran retaliates. Iran called his bluff. Days after the Soleimani strike, Iranian surface-to-surface missiles struck American installations in Iraq.
The ensuing rhetoric from President Trump was dithering, no doubt demoralizing, and Americans are dying due to the president’s misguided notion of foreign policy. With chaos reigning, Trump leverages his unpredictability as a source of strength, keeping his adversaries off balance. As a result, Americans are suffering the consequences of his perceived strengths, and there is no surety of protection in the event they must dutifully carry out the orders from their commander in chief. Despite declaring few casualties and retreating from threats, Iran’s strikes have resulted in traumatic brain injuries to more than 100 U.S. service members.
While the President of the United States does have wide latitude in his or her use of the U.S. military, President Trump’s claim that members of Congress do not understand the law is nonsensical. The War-Powers Act of 1973 emphasizes that only the Congress can declare war, and it reserves the right to remove U.S. military personnel from hostilities when no declaration is made. John Jay wrote in the Federalist Papers, “That absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it,” warning of personal ambitions. On executive war powers, Alexander Hamilton addressed that war should only be used as an instrument to further the nation’s “common strength,” not that of an individual simply because they have the authority to do so.
While its nuclear program is of grave national security interest, Iran does not pose a direct existential threat to the United States, except where the servicemen and women in its proximity are under attack from Iran for the first time in decades. It is in fact Trump’s irrational jump in the escalation cycle that has set conditions for the harming of U.S. citizens, and there is no direction to which this leads except disaster. First reported in the New York Times, President Trump was given a “menu” of options from which to choose concerning action in the Iran/Iraq region. The President stunned top Pentagon officials by choosing the most extreme option of assassinating Soleimani, decrying reason from his generals as a tool of “dopes and babies.”
We have entered a new era of international affairs. The U.S. under the leadership of President Trump is no longer the paragon of liberal ideals garnering unprecedented peace since WWII. According to the President there is a storm on the horizon, and only he is the meteorologist apt enough to predict its path. The resulting torrent has brought the United States to the brink of nuclear war, wounded dozens of American military personnel, and diminished whatever moral high ground may have been left before January 2017. Nothing wrought by man will stop this storm, and no world leader escapes the visage of its destruction. Nature has a way of righting itself. Eventually, things digress to the average.
Trump’s warning of a storm has become more ominous in recent days. Civil-military relations have crossed a threshold in the wake of the civil unrest stemming from the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in late May 2020. Having said little to unify the country, President Trump retreated to a secure bunker and stepped up his unilateral exertion of military force, this time against American citizens. After protests led to riots, Trump implored governors in a phone call to “dominate” the rioters and declared he would deploy active military personnel if governors were not up to the task. The president apparently disliked the optic of hiding and invoked the 1807 Insurrection Act, using military police to quell crowds near the White House to stroll across Lafayette Park for a photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church. In an unprecedented move, Trump informed governors that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, is “in charge” of the military response to the unrest breaking out in all fifty states and D.C. The statement is odd since the chairman is the principal advisor to the president, not a battlefield commander—and the streets of the United States are no battlefield.
Trump’s supporters argue that his America First strategy has made America great, leveraging his prowess as a deal maker to fortify national security. The U.S. withdrawals from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have made way for more diffuse international leadership. President Trump has called out international partners who allegedly do not pay their share of security agreements. His deals appear to work, as other nations have signalled agreement to pay pre-agreed upon costs or lead where the U.S. would have in the past. Time will tell if the strategy plays out, but for now it seems to have been effective.
In the meantime, we have to brace against the harsh unpredictability of man-made inducements that affect the path of an erratic geopolitical climate. The only option to counter its effects is a unified call to action by all segments of government. The U.S. Senate consolidated behind a 2015 bill designed to contain Iran nuclear development. The intent was to ensure Congress is at the forefront of American foreign policy toward Iran, including military action.
Executive containment efforts similar to the 2015 bill are more important now with President Trump consolidating his power. Congressional foreign affairs committees must interface with the U.S. Department of State and the military to align diplomatic efforts with potential military action in the event diplomacy fails. Such action would further stabilize a concerted front against Iranian aggression while invoking the president’s authority on foreign affairs. Emphasizing the military option keeps the president involved with his commander in chief authority, while respecting Congress’ ability to declare war. Utilizing the Congressional Review Process as a means to reinforce their stake in significant international action, Congress must also provoke expedient sales of military equipment to regional allies to temper the Iranian threat by solidifying alliances. Policies are most effective behind the weight of united government efforts, consolidating the combined efforts of the U.S. government as a source of strength in times of turmoil.
To ameliorate the chaos of Trump’s rash decisions, strengthening cooperative congressional and diplomatic action will serve to reinforce levees against geopolitical storms. In addition, international alliances and partnerships are tools to ward off threats to Americans who are at the mercy of executive actions. The Office of the President carries significant weight, however the common strength against concentrated power emphasized by the Founders bears more still. The executive power can be tempered by the whole government, respecting and involving the authority of the President, and restoring order in a time of turmoil.
William R. Monahan is entering his second year in the security policy studies program at the Elliott School. His professional career includes 12 years of active Air Force duty, in which he deployed three times to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Since concluding his military service, Monahan has served as a contractor at the National Security Agency and U.S. Department of State. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All content and comments are his own and do not reflect the views or opinions of the U.S. Department of State, National Security Agency, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Defense, or any other organization within the U.S. Government.