Living in the upside-down: how the US withdrawal from Syria triggers questions on War Powers

The War Powers Resolution has been enacted with the aim of reasserting Congressional authority in the realm of foreign policy. While its constitutionality has been constantly rejected by US Presidents over time, the arm-wrestling on the issue between the branches has always been triggered by US troop deployments in foreign theatres. Nevertheless, President Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria allows to consider the implications of withdrawal in the framework of the War Powers Resolution and unilateral executive foreign policy decisions.

Living in the upside-down: how the US withdrawal from Syria triggers questions on War Powers - Geopolitica.info

On November 7, 1973, the US Congress adopted the War Powers Resolution (WPR) a joint resolution aimed at fulfilling “the intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States and insure that the collective judgement of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, and to the continued use of such forces in hostilities or in such situations.” Enacted after a tenuous and difficult process of consensus-building within the US Congress, the piece of legislation places executive decisions regarding the deployment of US troops abroad under the supervision of Congress.

The War Powers Resolution lists consultations and reporting requirements that the US Presidents must observe in any instance involving the deployment of troops abroad without a formal declaration of war – which, in line with the prescriptions of the US Constitution, falls within the spectre of legislative prerogatives. The aim of the joint resolution was that of preventing the chance that further unilateral decisions by the executive branch could mire the US in prolonged and underestimated conflicts, as was the case with the Korean War and, most notably, the Vietnam War. Ever since the enactment of the War Powers Resolution, every sitting president has challenged its constitutionality on the grounds that it infringed upon the authority deriving from the title of Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces. Moreover, despite several invocations of the legislation by members of the Congress, the US administrations, one after another, have either side-stepped it by exploiting linguistic and structural loopholes, or avoided any major legal consequences because of a general tendency by the judiciary branch towards the abstention from conducting inquiries into political questions. This, in turn, has placed the burden of the fact-finding process on the US Congress, thereby undermining the whole purpose of preserving the mechanism of mutual checks and balances which underlies the conception of balance of power between the branches.

In addition to this, the War Powers Resolution has sparked questions on its constitutionality, as well as on its effectiveness. As a matter of fact, in absence of a congressional authorization for the use of force, the Resolution nevertheless grants the President a sixty-day “free” time to conduct military operations before the mandatory withdrawal of US troops. Moreover, up until last April, each invocation of the War Powers Resolution has shipwrecked against executive resistance and congressional inability to act decisively to challenge the White House.

Yet, winds of change have begun to blow under the Trump presidency as far as the War Powers Resolution is concerned. Firstly, on April 4, 2019, the US Congress adopted S. J. Res. 7, a joint resolution co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders, aimed at directing the removal of US troops introduced into hostilities into the Republic of Yemen in the context of the Yemen War, which has been considered the worst humanitarian crisis of our times by the UN. To be sure, President Trump’s subsequent veto over the legislation undercuts any chance to achieve the purpose of the joint resolution in the short term. Nevertheless, S. J. Res. 7 resolution marks the first successful invocation of the WPR in forty-six years, and its historical relevance in law-making sends at least mild comforting signals over the actual applicability of a long-criticized piece of legislation.

Secondly, and perhaps even more relevantly with regards to the WPR, President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria in mid-October may have opened a new front on the analysis of the broad concept of “war powers”. As a matter of fact, while the historical record shows that congressional lawsuits over alleged violations of the War Powers Resolution have – quite logically – been triggered by troop deployments, the US withdrawal from Syria has sparked a variety of questions which inherently share their foundations with the “traditional” War powers issues, in that they point to the risks deriving from the unilaterality of executive decisions in the domain of foreign policy. In other words, the issue presents a very peculiar case, in which the result – domestic opposition – is produced by the semantic opposite of the traditional “triggering” action – withdrawal. As a matter of fact, after the US withdrawal gave Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan free rein to initiate the incursion into the Rojava region, Trump’s decision has triggered fierce opposition at home, resulting in a considerable political damage as the House opposed the executive line in a bipartisan resolution condemning what it perceived as a “precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from the ongoing fight against terrorist groups in the region” which “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States and its allies”. Moreover, at the end of October, bipartisan opposition to the President mounted as the House voted to impose sanctions on Turkey to condemn its offensive against the Kurds in north-eastern Syria, a further legislative reassertion of authority that aimed at demonstrating “the strong, smart leadership that has certainly been lacking from the White House”, as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared.

While Trump’s often ambiguous management of foreign policy overlaps with an unprecedented turnover at the top echelons of the White House, questions over the unilateral character of executive decisions expand towards the consideration of concepts which, up until recent times, carried little significance. As the Syria case suggests, trying to examine events through a different perspective may allow detecting new interpretative keys which might help to navigate the complexities of a highly controversial presidency.