The Donald made the right call. Now that’s a rare statement. Calling off – or at least delaying – a military strike on Iran was prudent. Nevertheless, there was something deeply unsettling about the whole thing. The system is broken, perhaps irreparably.
The president never even considered seeking congressional approval before playing emperor and unleashing death and destruction on a sovereign nation. Why would he? Essentially every president, since Truman, has done the same thing one time or another. Unilateral executive action has been the American norm pretty much since World War II wrapped up. Seen in this context, Trump isn’t so anomalous as many would like to believe. Korea kicked off the trend. But the Vietnam advisory mission, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Libya, and Syria – to name the highlights – were all undertaken without the constitutionally mandated consent of the legislature.
In that sense, a dozen or so more palatable and polite emperors, I mean presidents, paved the way for the coarser and more buffoonish reality TV star currently calling the shots in the White House. Americans’ collective sin of ignoring foreign policy and ceding unilateral power to the executive branch has truly, and definitively, come home to roost. That’s partly why I find the protestations from Democratic lawmakers to be more about partisanship than principles. Genuine legislators – that spent more time following international policy instead of obsessively raising money – would all revolt and restrain the president regardless of their political party. We’re unlikely to see that.
None of this should be seen as a defense or normalization of Trump. The man is scary. His threats, vagueness, and propensity to turn on a policy dime are genuinely disturbing. So is his blatant affinity for autocrats the world over. The point is that I shouldn’t have to give "credit" to Trump when he acts prudently and demonstrates restraint. I, we, should not have to hang on the words and pronouncements of any one man. The populace, the media, the congress should not be relegated to spectators held hostage by the whims of any one man.
It doesn’t necessarily matter whether that person is Donald Trump or Barack Obama, per say. The system, as designed in the Constitution, judiciously places the supreme power of warfare squarely on Capitol Hill, on the collective judgment of the peoples’ elected representatives. Discussion, debate, deliberation – these ought to be the hallmarks of any rather profound decision to kill and maim other humans. Instead, in 21st century America, we "elect" – not necessarily by the popular vote count – an emperor and then watch and see what he does with our military and, heck, our nuclear arsenal for that matter.
Which places this author, and all Americans really, in the awkward, and pathetic, position of having to praise the lunatic-in-chief for not doing the unthinkable. All of us feast on the decisional scraps of one Donald Trump. It’s been normalized to such an extent that hardly anyone notices any longer. All Americans are essentially too trapped in the Matrix of imperial war to recognize the crumbing of national institutions. It easy (and somewhat accurate) to blame congress, or the media, or various presidents themselves, but the rot runs much deeper. Average Americans have forgotten how to be true citizens, forgotten how to mobilize in the streets and demand change. Too busy eking out a living after forty years of working wage stagnation, and no longer required to serve in America’s imperial wars, the people have opted out. We’re all guilty, all complicit, in the hijacking of the Constitution. So it was that I personally endured combat in two ill-advised, immoral wars in the Greater Middle East.
See, there are consequences for executive overreach and popular apathy. We can count the costs to the tune of $5.9 trillion spent, some 7,000 American soldiers killed, and about 480,000 dead foreigners. All of this occurred with either a congressional rubber stamp or, often, no stamp at all. While congressmen and senators were busy dialing-for-dollars, my soldiers were in the field killing and dying in rather real wars. I’m sure thankful that I’m out of the business of death-dealing, but also remain deeply unsettled by the knowledge that any war in Iran will affect, and forever damage, a new generation of officers and soldiers. Americans will then vacuously thank, and hollowly adulate, the troops involved. Almost no one will ask why those servicemen were sent to war in the first place, or question the process by which they were sent. All the while, the last remnants of the American republic will continue to crumble.
So here we are, hostages to one – rather disconcerting – man, Mr. Donald Trump. We’ll collectively wait for his decision on whether to call off, delay, or launch a new Mideast war, this time with Iran. It’s absurd and need not be this way. Citizens, real citizens I mean, could hit the streets, flood their congressmen’s’ offices, and shut down the whole damn country until the president adheres to the Constitution. It’s genuinely possible, but, of course, will not happen.
Instead, we’ll all remain glued to our TVs and phones, wondering what the emperor will do next. And when that supreme leader decides, occasionally, to show restraint, I’ll be in the awkward and insane position of giving Donald Trump "credit" when he doesn’t embark on another illegal war in our name. And more’s the pity.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen