Among his greatest blunders, President Donald J. Trump’s decision to assassinate the top Iranian army commander may prove to have the longest lasting consequences, both in the Middle East and in this country. The United States has long valued civilian control of the military. Now that tradition, enshrined in the Constitution, is threatened by a leader who acts on impulse and ignores the advice of those with whom he disagrees.
This is a nightmare scenario — a nuclear deterrent might become the only option when a civilian commander in chief makes a unilateral decision that puts untold numbers of lives at risk, destabilizes further an unstable region, and sends a message to foreign adversaries and allies alike that the United States cannot be trusted.
Congress is at fault, too. A 2003 resolution placed the ability to start a war in the hands of just one person — the president. This has made being armed a great factor in domestic politics and one factor in the endlessness of the United States’ current conflicts abroad. A White House has to project toughness, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office, and the party of a president who backs away from the use of force is at greater risk of losses in the next election cycle.
Consolidation of power in the presidency also increases the danger of corrupting foreign influence — Russian President Vadimir Putin’s grasp of Mr. Trump’s limited imagination shows that it is easier to manipulate just one man than turn the thinking of a majority of members of the House and Senate.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence and authors of the Constitution feared this. Having embarked on an audacious path to break away from the king of England, they drafted plans for a new government based on the people’s, albeit white male, will. In the system they devised, Congress has the power to declare war and to make the rules governing the military; the president, as operational commander, is supposed to work with that coequal branch to deploy force. Indeed, a key prerogative of the president is to reject the military’s advice.
If the military believes the presidency is acting against its interests, it could be persuaded to act in secret. Congress could seek to change the system, vesting more authority, not less, in the top generals to protect the country from the whims of an incompetent president in the future.
Civilian control of the power of war has been respected over the years through the law, military education and tradition, and respect for elected leaders. Congress made its will clear by setting the limit on previously commissioned officers from being appointed secretary of defense at seven years from the end of their service for a variety of reasons, including the threat to civilian control.
The current president and those who abet him have threatened all that. Congress must reassert its constitutional right.