It will be up to the American electorate to hold Trump accountable should he fail to respect constitutional limits on his authority as president.
The most disastrous US military interventions are those that did not receive a mandate from the UN Security Council beforehand and those that ignored their UN mandate and deepened US military involvement. Iraq and Libya are examples of both the former and the latter. Because of the lack international recognition, both actions lacked legitimacy and suffered from suspicion. The US’s international image veered in the “imperialist” direction among citizens of foreign countries, especially the developing world. My opinion is that US military interventions should be limited specifically to inter-state wars (i.e. the Gulf War) not internal wars (i.e. Syria and Libya), but no matter what the intervention, the US must legitimize it first in the UN Security Council and prove that it is a responsible and benign super power.
But hold on, let’s take a step back. International institutions aside, maybe the US should first be seeking legitimacy though its own deliberative institution: Congress. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (available here), Stephen Weissman describes the state of congressional involvement in deciding matters of US military interventions since 9/11. The results honestly surprised me – Congress’s involvement has been very limited, and it has mostly deferred to the Executive branch in matters of war. The deliberation of the invasion of Iraq was short and superficial; there was no deliberation prior to intervention in Libya; and Congress only deliberated US involvement in Syria after it was requested to by the Obama administration.
This shocked me. As everyone knows Congress exists in order to check and balance the Executive branch, and there is arguably no matter where checks and balances are more important than matters of war. The result of Congress’s lack of involvement in war-related decisions is the same as the exclusion of the UN Security Council: a lack of legitimacy. In effect, the powers of the Executive branch has expanded since 9/11, and this is not due to formal legislative amendments, but merely due to Congress’s inaction. This is not how democracy should work, needless to say. Although the election made it clear to me that American democracy is warped, this new information lends more to my image of dysfunctionality. Congress must be more active in foreign affairs matters, war in particular.
This shakes my confidence in the next four years. Faced with an unpredictable and inexperienced president like Trump, my one consolation was that the president’s power is held in check at all times by Congress. The quote from Dawn Johnson is sorely incorrect. It is not the job of the American people to keep Trump in check – that is the job of Congress. The American people already did their job when they elected their representatives. It is congress’s responsibility to be activists for the interests of the American people and check a president, who is supported by less than 50% of American voters. However, if Congress continues to defer to the Executive branch on the most important matters, we citizens of the world should all fear for the future, because the US is like a semi-truck speeding forward without brakes. Congress, please abandon party politics and restore confidence in the American system.
Weissman, Stephen R. “Congress and War: How the House and the Senate can reclaim their role.” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2017.