North Korea

Trump's Mixed Messages on North Korea Show Importance of Congress' Role in War Making

Checks and balances are there for a reason.


Ron Sachs/SIPA/Newscom

The Trump Show's™ latest story line involves North Korea and the authoritarian country's recent missile tests. Just as he did during the campaign, Donald Trump is wont to take diametrically opposite positions on any issue with abandon. Now the world's his stage.

Last week, President Trump told Reuters he believed there was a chance of a "major, major conflict with North Korea." The comments came on the heels of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opening the door to potential negotiations with the North Korean regime, as The New York Times noted.

"Viewed in the most charitable light, Mr. Trump was, in his own nondiplomatic way, building pressure to force the North to halt its nuclear and missile tests," The New York Times suggested, "the first step toward resuming the kind of negotiations that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has begun to talk about."

Then Monday, Trump offered that he'd be "honored" to meet with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, and was open to such a meeting "under the right circumstances." Trump's phrasing re-enforced the notion that Trump has a thing for authoritarian world leaders—such praise highlights his own authoritarian tendencies. But the U.S. has also long had a thing for authoritarian world leaders, and a deep history of supporting authoritarian regimes.

There is a case to be made for some strategic ambiguity—that a sort of wildcard foreign policy can create negotiating room and force reflection on long-held and long-uninterrogated assumptions about foreign policy. But Trump's statements don't appear to add up to anything strategic. It's a higher-energy, more frenetic version of the same kind of aimless, interventionist, and ultimately destructive and counterproductive, foreign policy pursued by Barack Obama.

For example, while President Trump floated the idea that the South Korean government would have to pay for the U.S. missile defense system the two countries agreed last year the U.S. would deploy in the region, his national security advisor, and the interim South Korean government (elections are next week), insisted that would not be the case. The system went live in South Korea this week.

The leading presidential candidate in South Korea, Moon Jae in, has said he would review the system's deployment. H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security advisor, says the Trump administration continues to insist American allies pay more for their defense. Trump's comments could make it more likely for Moon to keep his promise of review if elected.

In the first month of the Trump administration, Defense Secretary James Mattis went to Europe to tell its leaders that American taxpayers could no longer "carry a disproportionate share of the defense of western values," particularly on NATO, which Trump had long critiqued on the campaign trail European leaders more or less called Trump's bluff, and the president eventually decided NATO was "no longer obsolete." Such heel-turns turn Trump's pronouncement into little more than noise.

That noise is dangerous largely thanks to Congress. On Face the Nation Sunday, asked if another North Korean nuclear test would yield a military response, President Trump said he didn't know, highlighting the importance of Congress asserting its war-making powers.

After Obama committed the U.S. military to intervention in Libya, Congress voted against an authorization of the actions, but also rejected a bill by Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) which would have defunded the Libya effort. The legislative tool exists, but if there wasn't the political will to use it in a Republican-led Congress against an unconstitutional action by a Democratic president, it's unlikely to be used now.

The U.S.-backed intervention in Libya led to the overthrow of Col. Qaddafi less than a decade after he volunteered to surrender his alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to avoid the fate of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Hussein's insistence on WMDs became part of the case made by the Bush administration in the run up to the war on Iraq. It was the last time Congress explicitly authorized U.S. military action.

Congress' continued abdication of its constitutional role on war-making in favor of unilateral presidential action, particularly since the Iraq war, has invited the aimless interventions, as has Congress' concomitant support for sanctions, wanton military spending surrounding, and tough-talking postures against countries like North Korea.

In 2002, as George W. Bush and his administration faced what they said was a regime in Iraq bent on developing WMDs, the president went to Congress for an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). The U.S. invaded Iraq six months after Congress passed the AUMF, after the Bush administration said it exhausted other means to compel Saddam Hussein to disarm. It wasn't until well after the invasion and subsequent occupation that the U.S. learned Hussein was bluffing. He did not expect the U.S. to invade despite Congress voting on just such an authorization.

The Iraq AUMF did not prevent a war, but it forced the Bush administration to articulate a case for war in Iraq, however wrong it was. In the absence of Congress, the president can do anything. Trump's first 100 days, which saw military strikes against the Syrian government and an escalation of interventions elsewhere, illustrate what that means. Congress' failures don't lead to positive foreign policy outcomes, even with presidents who have filters.