In a speech at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the United States would maintain a military presence in Syria indefinitely. This announcement echoes statements from the Pentagon last year after it had to clarify the size of the U.S. military deployment there. According to Tillerson, the American mission there will be to maintain security in anticipation of United Nations supervised elections that he predicted would remove the Assad regime from power.
Buzzfeed’s John Hudson provides some details on Tillerson’s speech:
A central pillar to Tillerson’s plan, delivered in a speech at Stanford University, is a UN-supervised election that Tillerson predicted would result in new leadership.
“The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power,” said Tillerson.
“Assad’s regime is corrupt, and his methods of governance and economic development have increasingly excluded certain ethnic and religious groups,” said Tillerson. “Such oppression cannot persist forever.”
A November joint-statement between Trump and Vladimir Putin called for “UN-monitored” elections. But Tillerson’s speech calls for “UN-supervised” elections, a process that is more invasive and includes additional requirements such as a voting populace that isn’t intimidated, fearful of arrest and has access to media.
Tillerson’s announcement is just the latest in the continuing series of data points demonstrating how wrong those who claimed during the 2016 campaign that Donald Trump would be less hawkish than Hillary Clinton really were. But regardless of who’s occupying the White House, something needs to be done about the executive branch’s unfettered ability to undertake and extend military interventions.
As Spencer Ackerman of the Daily Beast notes, “The U.S. has neither a United Nations nor a congressional mandate for its presence in Syria, yet faces minimal political or international pressure for ending it.” Leaving aside international pressure for the time being, the problem with highlighting the lack of congressional authorization for the mission is that those who would grant need to care enough to do so and to enforce such an authorization should the executive branch overstep it.
As discussed here and elsewhere previously, members of Congress have little reason to care though. Foreign policy lacks salience for most voters and their elected representatives can therefore safely ignore it. With some notable exceptions, failing to take a stand with regards to the legislative branch’s responsibility to authorize military force also allows lawmakers to take credit when a military action goes well or claim opposition when it goes wrong.
Absent issues of war and peace becoming more salient for voters, elected officials will continue to punt on their responsibility to authorize and oversee the use of military force. Absent that, these types of open-ended military missions will continue to proliferate.