This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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A No-Nonsense President
On January 3, 2020, the new year was ushered in with a shocking “bang.” President Trump announced that Iran’s premier general – Qassam Soleimani – was killed during a retaliatory airstrike the previous evening. Responses from all sides of the political arena ensued. Many on the Right were thrilled that President Trump had taken a stand against the regime and its hostility to American lives.
Others, especially among Liberals and Libertarians, were not as ecstatic. While many people on the Left will oppose President Trump regardless of his decisions on any issue, Libertarians are indifferent towards Trump on this decision for other reasons. The Libertarian claim is that, because Trump did not ask Congress for a declaration of war, his actions were unconstitutional.
After all, the Constitution does say that only Congress has the power to declare war. It should be noted, however, that there have been many times since the introduction of the Constitution in which retaliation has been necessary for the survival of America and its citizens. Retaliation, in fact, does not have to mean an all-out declaration of war. For starters, we can look back to some of the republic’s earliest days.
Jefferson and the Art of Retaliation
During the days of the American founding and the decades that followed, the lives of US soldiers and civilians traveling through the Mediterranean Sea were at risk. Under the leadership of Yusuf Karamaneli, Islamic pirates from the Barbary Coast were notorious for capturing Americans and Europeans. Following their capture, many were either enslaved or held as a ransom. Until 1801, America sought peace with the Barbary pirates. George Washington and John Adams, hoping to maintain peace within the region, maintained that paying tribute would prevent war.
When Thomas Jefferson entered the presidential arena, however, he insisted that the tributes to the Tripolitan Empire cease, angering Karamaneli. In response, Tripoli “demanded a payment of $225,000 on top of the annual payments of $25,000,” according to the Bill of Rights Institute. For Jefferson, enough was enough. It was time for American soldiers and sailors to stop being humiliated on the high seas by a foreign enemy. When Tripoli declared war on the US, Jefferson quickly responded.
America’s First Major Conflict, Post-Revolution
The First Barbary War would be America’s first major conflict following the American Revolution. While the war is not often remembered today, it holds historical significance. For example, that line in the first stanza of the Marines’ hymn – “…to the shores of Tripoli” – gives credit to the brave Marines who fought the Barbary pirates. Likewise, the nickname “Leathernecks,” attributed to the Marines, is associated with the fact that Marines at Tripoli (as well as before the conflict) would wear leather collars to protect their neck region from sword slashes. While Jefferson was right to fight the pirates, his method in deploying troops was unique for the time.
While the Constitution had made it clear that only Congress has the authority to declare war, Jefferson believed that process would have taken too long, and he needed to act quickly. While Jefferson did consult Congress, they did not authorize an official declaration of war. Instead, they passed the Act for Protection of Commerce and Seamen of the United States Against the Tripolitan Corsairs. In essence, while Jefferson’s retaliation should certainly be considered necessary, it may not have been the most Constitutionally orthodox decision.
The War Powers Act
Since World War II, there has been no true Congressional approval for war. This means that every conflict fought since the second world war, from Korea to Afghanistan, has not had authorization from Congress. Does this mean that every presidential retaliation to a foreign enemy has been an unconstitutional declaration of war? Not necessarily, especially if we go by Jefferson’s standards.
In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act. This law permits the president to use military action without a congressional declaration of war, provided that the president notifies Congress within 48 hours, and that armed troops remain on the ground for no longer than 60 days without a congressional war declaration. While this act could bring plenty of potential problems, one could argue that it was a necessary step in preventing full-scale, larger conflicts. Sometimes, it is better to retaliate and end a hostility than allow it to continue and risk more lives.
The Art of Retaliation: Peace Through Strength
In 1986, President Reagan ordered airstrikes on Libya, following the death of an American serviceman at a German nightclub at the hands of Libyan terrorists, which also injured many others. The result of the strikes included the death of Muammar Gadaffi’s son and better respect for America. Reagan’s address to the nation following the airstrikes was iconic. Because of the War Powers Act, Reagan’s retaliation could be rendered, at least somewhat, constitutionally valid.
Today, President Trump shares a similar view. He has ordered several strikes in the Middle East when he had reason to believe that American lives were in danger, and he has made it clear that he will not tolerate abuse of our citizens anywhere. Trump, like Jefferson and Reagan before him, understands that peace sometimes means taking the fight to the enemy, before they have a chance to hurt anyone else.