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The Syria Controversy Is A Proxy War Over America’s Foreign Policy


The great game never ends, but the American people are tired of playing. While members of the foreign policy establishment (or experts, as they prefer to be called) continue the work of empire, with its interests, alliances, and intrigues around the globe, the people they are supposedly working for want out. This divergence, exemplified by the debate over Syria, imperils the legitimacy, as well as the efficacy, of American foreign and military policy.

This is why the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis has been presented as a crisis. Losing a skilled, honorable man’s services due to irreconcilable differences with the president would be a blow to any administration, let alone one as chaotic as Trump’s.

But cabinet officials are supposed to be replaceable and to serve at the pleasure of the president. Mattis’s departure matters not just because he was likely a check on the president’s worst impulses, but because it highlights the broader legitimation crisis that results from American foreign and military policy being run without democratic accountability and against popular opinion.

Syria Is a Prism for Foreign Policy at Large

The debate over our involvement and strategy in Syria is important in itself, but it is also a proxy for the fight over who has the authority to direct American foreign and military policy. Continued American intervention in Syria is being pushed everywhere from National Review to The New York Times. But whatever its merits as policy, it remains unpopular beyond destroying ISIS, which is largely accomplished.

Congress, sensitive to public opinion on this at least, declined to authorize the mission creep the ostensible experts favor. Although Congress has also fecklessly declined to do anything to restrain American involvement in undeclared wars, the Constitution still requires positive authorization for war, which is supposed to be declared and directed by elected officials answerable to the people.

Regardless of the wishes of the people, Congress, and even the current commander-in-chief, the foreign policy establishment has kept playing the great game, presumably on the theory that it is easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission. These officials believe their policies are correct, and the broad strategy of maintaining American influence and protecting American interests justifies involvement in a particular crisis or hot spot. President Trump’s flaws provide them with a ready excuse for ignoring, and even subverting, political leadership.

From their point of view, they are patriots, protecting the nation’s interests against the ill-informed folly of a populist blowhard. And no doubt the military men and foreign policy officials in the administration have checked some foolish policies and impulses. What they seem to overlook is the damage they have inflicted to the legitimacy of American foreign policy.

It is not just a question of implementing the right policy, but of policy being implemented by the right person. Getting policy right matters, but constitutional and democratic norms must also be preserved.

Mattis Set the Right Example

Mattis has therefore done the honorable thing by resigning. Presidential advisors have a responsibility to give the president the best advice they can, and a duty to resign if they cannot carry out his lawful orders. But some seem to believe it is their prerogative to subvert or even sabotage presidential directives they dislike.

Thus, the dual legitimation crisis besetting the Western, liberal order is particularly acute in foreign policy. The people are losing faith in the legitimate authority of those making decisions, ostensibly on their behalf, and the elite are losing their belief that their authority derives from the people.

Rejecting democratic theories that ground legitimacy in “the consent of the governed,” the foreign policy elite believe they have a right to govern based on their expertise. Their media allies have reinforced this in their coverage of Mattis’ resignation, which they have presented as delegitimizing for the president.

This crisis did not originate with Trump’s election. Rather, it developed during the Obama administration, which treated Congress with contempt. Despite running as a non-interventionist, President Obama engaged in various conflicts without seeking congressional approval or even making much of an effort to sell his decisions to the American people.

George W. Bush was the last president to seek congressional authorization and popular approval for his foreign policy interventions. Regrettable as some of his decisions now appear, they were legitimate in a way that subsequent overseas endeavors have not been.

Right Policy, Maybe. Wrong Procedure, Definitely

President Trump promised to wind down American military involvement in the Middle East after defeating ISIS, but has struggled to implement this policy over the objections and obstructions of the foreign policy establishment. The interventionist consensus that has all but dispensed with making its case to the people, let alone asking permission from Congress, perceives presidential opposition as just another obstacle to overcome.

As a matter of policy, they may be right. As a matter of constitutional procedure and democratic accountability, they are wrong.

The military is being deployed without the approval of Congress and against the wishes of the American people. The foreign policy establishment has persistently subverted the president’s policy of withdrawal from the Syria conflict. Even if their policy is right, none of the goals of American involvement in Syria are worth shredding the Constitution for.

This legitimation crisis will not resolve itself whenever Trump leaves office. The great game will always be going on, and the American foreign policy establishment will always want to play. They may be right to do so. From the early days of our republic, the national interest has often demanded military deployment. Even Jefferson had to send the military to confront the Barbary pirates.

But the military is supposed to be under the control of the political branches. Without the consent of the sovereign people, acting through the constitutionally required approval of their representatives, military action delegitimizes our government. There is no need for another unaccountable military in Syria, not even the U. S. Army.