What would history say about missile strikes in Syria?
Recently the Trump administration had ordered missile strikes in response to reports that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians. While there is much debate as to wether US involvement would lead to a better outcome in the civil war, not much is discussed as far as the historical context and constitutional questions of the use of military force. If we go back in US history, we see a more complex and nuanced perspective among the founding fathers with regards to military intervention abroad. Many of us know the famous farewell speech of George Washington in which he famously warns the American people of engaging in “Entangling alliances abroad”. However, this skepticism of military involvement in foreign affairs ran much deeper than just alliances, but also towards the military itself. Both federalists and anti-federalists alike shared a fear of standing armies (professional full time armies) which could be abused. Joseph Warren, a prominent anti-federalist stated in a speech following the Boston Massacre; “Soldiers are also taught to consider arms as the only arbiters by which every dispute is to be decided… they are instructed implicitly to obey their commanders, without inquiring into the justice of the cause… they are ever to be dreaded as the ready engines of tyranny and oppression.”
James Madison, famous Federalist wrote in the Federalist papers; “A standing force therefore is a dangerous, at the same time that it may be a necessary provision. On the smallest scale it has its inconveniences. On an extensive scale, its consequences may be fatal.”
Statements like these fueled the inspiration for the 3rd Amendment in the Bill of Rights, prohibiting the forced quartering of troops on American soil. Constitutional provisions such as the Army and Navy clauses specify restrictions of the funding of standing armies. The Army clause stated; The Congress shall have Power To …raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years…. The Constitution also only gives the power to declare war to Congress.
All of these restrictions cannot be ignored in the debate over US military involvement in foreign conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War. Sadly, since World War II, all military conflicts the US has engaged in have been undeclared wars. This issue of disregard for constitutional history is not unique to the left or the right. Former presidents Bush and Obama under the “War on Terror” have engaged in substantial military action all around the world, with little discussion on constitutional legitimacy of such conflicts. Now that Trump has engaged in military action in countries like Yemen and Syria, we will have to see if these type of concerns will make the press this time.