Several pundits, members of Congress, and former Obama officials have worked themselves up over President Donald Trump's latest perceived slight to military families. But the far greater and more persistent slight comes from a rudderless U.S. foreign policy whose pointless military interventions lead inevitably to needless deaths.
Had Trump not botched the landing so tremendously on calling the families of the four soldiers killed in Niger two weeks ago, the incident, and America's presence in the landlocked West African country, would have been forgotten by most Americans.
Instead, we've plunged into a he-said/she-said over what exactly Trump told the widow of one of the soldiers killed in Niger. The widow's congresswoman, Democrat Frederica Wilson, was in the car while Trump was on speakerphone and claims he told the woman her husband "knew what he signed up for." Trump denies it; the soldier's mother backs up Wilson's account. All of which ignores the question of what exactly the U.S. is doing in Niger in the first place.
U.S. operations in Niger, ongoing since the Bush II era, have been a bipartisan failure of strategy and accountability. Troops were first sent to Niger in 2005 to "assist" French and local counterterrorist efforts. The Bush administration never bothered to seek congressional authorization, nor to claim that the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) covered the effort. When Obama sent additional troops to the country in 2013, that move came with no congressional input or substantive public debate either.
Most members of Congress are more comfortable getting outraged at Trump being a boor than asserting their constitutional role in making U.S. war policy. The best way to honor soldiers' sacrifices is to put some limits on America's war machine.
For 16 years now, successive presidents have used the post-9/11 AUMF to wage war around the world. The U.S. deployed troops first to Afghanistan—now home to the longest war in American history—and then to the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq (for the ISIS mission), Syria, Somalia, and who knows where else.
The only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF was Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who warned presciently that the bill would be a blank check for the executive branch to wage war around the world. Her most recent effort to set an expiration date on the 2001 AUMF was killed by the House Republican leadership without a debate or a vote on the floor.
Congress' unwillingness to check the executive's military actions is far more disrespectful to the troops than anyone's careless words can be on their own, even the president's.