Should Congress authorize war with China in order to prevent war with China? It doesn’t take a legal scholar or policy expert to know the correct answer is a resounding “no.” Yet that is precisely what Representative Elaine Luria (D-Va.) is arguing in a new op-ed in the Washington Post.
This is flawed and problematic on multiple levels. First, there’s the baffling legal analysis. Complaining that the president’s “hands'' are “legally tied,” Rep. Luria warns that “the president has no legal authority, without the express authorization of Congress, to use military force to defend Taiwan,” citing the War Powers Resolution and Taiwan Relations Act. In fairness, she is completely correct that the president does not have such unilateral authority, but she has ignored the fundamental reason why: because the U.S. Constitution says so.
It is supposed to be really hard to get into a new war. This is why the Framers of the Constitution explicitly gave to the Congress — as the branch of government most accountable to the people — the duty to ultimately decide whether or not the United States would enter each new conflict. This is supposed to happen after the president makes a case for military force and probably after some protests and advocacy from the public.
But this process is quickly becoming a thing of the distant past, as more and more war powers accumulate in the unilateral hands of the president. From President Obama orchestrating a regime change operation in Libya to President Trump assassinating Iranian General Qassam Soleimani to President Biden’s bombing of Iran-backed militias — all without congressional approval — presidents have stretched, twisted, abused, or outright fabricated their authority to justify using force when they so desire.
It’s difficult to find evidence of a president who wanted to order military force but felt his hands were too “tied” by Congress, as Rep. Luria suggests. It’s much easier to find evidence of Congress’s complicity in these expanding presidential war powers, primarily in its refusal to repeal outdated and overstretched war authorizations, leaving them ripe for presidential abuse (although there is reason to believe this is changing!)
But Rep. Luria’s proposal advocates for Congress to go beyond the status quo in which it sits back and does nothing while presidents abuse their war authority. She argues for taking things further and setting disastrous precedent by approving a new war before the president has even suggested it and before the hypothetical triggering event has even occurred. This is the exact inverse of what the Constitution prescribes. She claims we do not have time for that pesky process of Congress debating and voting on an authorization if and when the president actually wants one, so it’s better to just give it to him now. According to Rep. Luria, this will show China we are serious about “repel[ing] an invasion and de-escalat[ing] the situation.”
This entire premise rests on a fantasy of American exceptionalism in which the United States can and must lead Taiwan to a military victory against Chinese invasion. It completely ignores the U.S. military’s own simulations that have repeatedly shown no realistic path to such a victory, and the fact that senior military leadership is, at best, divided on whether Chinese invasion of Taiwan is actually likely. It also defies logic to suggest that such an authorization would deter or prevent large-scale conflict, as it would surely be seen as a provocation by China. By establishing an overly-available military option, Congress would be setting in motion a chain of events that could hamper diplomatic possibilities and make war between two nuclear powers all the more likely.
And therein lies the deepest flaw in Rep. Luria’s proposal: its utter disregard for human life. For the many, many people who would face violence, economic collapse, displacement, or other reverberating effects from a new war with China, it is likely cold comfort that their lives are merely being dangled in the balance for evidence-free “deterrence” purposes. This is exactly why skirting the constitutional war powers scheme is so troubling. It isn’t about process, it’s about morality. The whole point of that scheme is to put up a roadblock in the hopes of sparing lives and achieving peaceful and just outcomes without resorting to the use of force.
Back in 2001, a U.S. senator underscored this when he said, “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.” That senator was Joe Biden, and he was right. Hopefully now-President Joe Biden — and the rest of Congress — will heed that advice and denounce this reckless proposal.