Bombs Away? A Reagan-Trump Comparison

President Trump has stirred the criticism pot with his military actions: striking an air base in Syria and using the largest bomb in the US arsenal to destroy terrorists’ caves in Afghanistan. It has led some to question exactly what authority a president has to use the military without first consulting Congress.

That’s an important question because the Constitution gives Congress the authority to declare war, not any president unilaterally. Of course, Congress hasn’t passed an actual war declaration since WWII. All of our actions militarily since then have either been in conjunction with the UN (Korea, Persian Gulf War) or with tacit approval of Congress to defend American lives (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). The latter were with congressional resolutions that fall short of true declarations.

Yet are there times when a president cannot wait for Congress to debate a matter because surprise is essential? Can the use of the military for one specific action be taken by presidential authority without a full declaration of war?

Let’s look at the Reagan years for a couple of examples.

In 1983, a militant pro-Castro faction overthrew the government of Maurice Bishop, a moderate Marxist, on the island of Grenada. Reagan immediately understood the implications of the coup: if the new government survived, a third Cuba (Marxist Nicaragua was viewed as the second Cuba in Reagan’s mind) would have come into existence during his watch. Grenada would become another Soviet client-state in the Western hemisphere.

The new Grenadian administration brought in 600 Cubans to construct an airstrip that could accommodate large military planes. This worried not only the US but other island-nations in the region. Prime Minister Eugenia Charles of Dominica came to the White House to share her concerns with Reagan and ask for help.

Another factor Reagan had to take under consideration was several hundred Americans who were attending a medical school on the island. He wanted to ensure their safety, but knew that if word got out that action was being contemplated, those Americans could easily become hostages. The threat of another Iranian-type hostage situation loomed.

So, for national security reasons and fear for the safety of American lives, Reagan chose to act swiftly and as quietly as possible. He did bring in congressional leadership, both Republican and Democrat, before taking action, informing them of the situation. He got the go-ahead from them to proceed.

On October 25, Reagan sent 10,000 U.S. marines and army airborne troops to invade the island. All resistance was eliminated after three days of fighting. At first, some members of Congress were outraged, but public support for the invasion soared as TV coverage featured interviews with the grateful American students.

Then there was Libya in 1986.

This radical Islamic state ruled by strongman Muammar Qaddafi had used its oil revenues to bankroll terrorists in Europe and the Middle East. On April 15, 1986, having concluded that Libya had supported and financed the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin frequented by American military personnel, Reagan ordered the bombing of five targets in Libya, including the presidential palace.

Reagan wanted to send a message to Qaddafi that he needed to back off his financial support for terrorism, and that he should think twice before aiding and abetting attacks that might kill and injure US soldiers.

Again, Reagan felt that giving advance warning for this punitive action would allow Libya to prepare for it and minimize the damage. He had already publicly proclaimed the US perspective on Libya and other nations directly involved with terrorism when he said in a speech that Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya were “outlaw states run by the strangest collection of misfits, loony-tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.” Of Qaddafi, he said, “He’s not only a barbarian, he’s flaky.”

In both of these instances, Reagan took into consideration national security and saving the lives of American citizens. Both actions were short-term, not full-fledged wars, and required secrecy for their success.

Trump’s decisions have to be evaluated in that same light. I have no problem with the Afghanistan bombing, as it is part of an ongoing effort to eliminate terrorism aimed at America. It would be nice, though, for Congress to go the whole way for a declaration of war and make it more constitutional. Yet I realize that it is difficult in this situation because terrorism is not confined to one nation; it is a continuing problem that pops up everywhere.

As for Syria, I have mixed feelings. Trump apparently decided to go ahead with that bombing because of the use of chemical weapons on Syrian citizens. He saw pictures of the results and was horrified. Who wouldn’t be?

But was there a direct danger to American citizens over Syria’s use of chemical weapons? Was our national security threatened by this terrible action? We are a compassionate people who want to stop atrocities, but can we do that everywhere in the world? Aren’t atrocities occurring in many nations? Where do we strike and where do we not?

Decisions need to be made on the basis of national security and saving American lives first and foremost. Other reasons may enter in as well, but there needs to be a compelling need to act; we can’t merely make emotional decisions.

My concern is that Trump often makes decisions based on emotion. He has little understanding of constitutional authority and limitations; neither does he care to learn.

While I can inwardly cheer that the bombing in Syria sends a message, I can wonder about the wisdom of that decision and whether it really accomplished its purposes.

My concerns about how Trump makes decisions and whether he has any bedrock principles have never gone away. I’m also concerned that too many Americans don’t care about those principles. Yet without a proper understanding of the rule of law, we are in trouble.

Obama’s Syria vs. Reagan’s Grenada & Libya: The Differences

Syria SpeechI agree with President Obama. Now, get up off the floor and read the rest. I know the first sentence was a shock to your system, but it is a limited agreement with all kinds of cautions. On what do we agree? His decision to turn to Congress to debate what action should or should not be taken in Syria was the correct decision. I have no illusions as to why he finally decided to do so—it had far more to do with public opinion and lack of support from other countries than from any constitutional scruples of his own. But I’ll take what we can get.

Only the Congress can declare a war. I realize that’s rather quaint to say nowadays, but it’s still the truth—at least if we seek to abide by even a shred of the concept of rule of law anymore. I’m glad Congress is going to take up the issue when it returns on September 9; my hope is that, after the debate, we will not commit any military to this theater of action. My reason? There is no side to support. One side uses chemical weapons against the other and is an ally of Iran, while the other commits atrocities of its own, particularly on the Christian community. It does so primarily because Al Qaeda is part of the rebel coalition. As I stated in a previous post, it would be unconscionable to provide military aid to any movement associated with that terrorist organization. I also believe that if the opposition should win, Syria won’t be a better place, and it certainly could get demonstrably worse.

There’s another facet of this as well. If the Congress should do as I have outlined, Obama may disregard the vote and go ahead with military strikes anyway. His administration has concluded it can act unilaterally, and cites the War Powers Act for authorization. I fully agree that, if attacked, or if America or American citizens are in imminent danger, the president can move forward without a protracted debate first. But those are worst-case scenarios. Neither can the War Powers Act go contrary to the Constitution, regardless of the rationalizations used by supporters of taking action.

Some may cite what Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s as a similar situation. Again, I disagree. Reagan used the military in two specific instances: Grenada and Libya. Here are the differences.

C18148-8First, in Grenada, a radical Marxist government took over, Cubans were employed to build a runway for aircraft, and the island would have become another outpost for the Soviets in the Western Hemisphere. The other islands nearby were frightened by this prospect and asked America for help. In addition, there were American citizens on the island, medical students, whose lives were endangered by this takeover. Reagan moved swiftly and without congressional debate primarily because if he hadn’t, those students would undoubtedly have been used as hostages and/or human shields. He did consult with congressional leaders from both parties before acting, but he couldn’t afford to wait until Congress had aired everything. A public debate would have allowed time for the Soviet allies to prepare. When those students returned home, he welcomed them to the White House. They were exuberant that their nation had put their safety first.

In 1985, a disco in West Berlin was the target for a terrorist attack,  bombs killing and wounding many, including American soldiers stationed in that city. The investigation led back to Qaddafi in Libya. This was a direct attack on Americans, and Reagan responded with a military strike on specified targets within that country. He also hoped he could take out Qaddafi as well. While the latter objective wasn’t achieved, Qaddafi’s direct involvement in terrorism lessened from that day forward.

Today, in Syria, while events on the ground are horrific, and even though in a general sense what happens in the Middle East will affect us, no Americans are in imminent danger and, as I have already stated, there is no one to support. All options are lose-lose. For those reasons, I am not in favor of using our military in this situation. But above all, I am opposed to the president simply doing whatever he wishes in disregard of the Constitution.

So, President Obama has done one thing right. Now it’s Congress’s turn to do what is right. If Congress does so, Obama must then abide by that decision. I have no illusions that he will do so because it is the right thing to do, but I’m hopeful there will too much pressure on him to do otherwise.

The Real Double Standard

I’ve been doing some more thinking about President Obama’s decision to lend military aid to Libyan rebels. I’ve critiqued the decision on constitutional grounds—he never consulted Congress. Then I thought about Ronald Reagan’s decision to send troops to Grenada back in 1983. He didn’t consult Congress either. Neither did he do so when he bombed Libya [and the same Qaddafi] in 1985. So that leaves a person open to criticism that a double standard exists.

There are distinct differences, however.

With respect to Grenada, Reagan had a couple of things to consider: first, all the other island nations in the region begged the U.S. for help, fearing that once the Soviets totally controlled Grenada, they might be next; second, there were 800 American medical students in the country. Any advance notice of a military strike would have risked making those students hostages, as our embassy personnel in Iran had been under Carter. Reagan had to move without public debate to ensure their safety. When the operation was over, a few Democratic congressmen started an impeachment movement; it went nowhere because even the Democratic House Speaker Tip O’ Neill agreed with Reagan’s decision.

By the way, those medical students were thrilled to be rescued. Reagan later received them at the White House.

With respect to his bombing of Libya, that was in direct response to Qaddafi’s financing of terrorism, culminating in a bomb at a West Berlin nightclub that killed one American serviceman and injured another 200. Any president has the right to respond to an attack on American citizens.

When George W. Bush sent the military into both Afghanistan and Iraq, it was with congressional approval from both parties. Yet some Democrats, and the liberal left as a whole, have never ceased to castigate him for his actions. He was the devil personified in their eyes.

Yet how do they treat the current president when he sends the military into action—without congressional approval?

They have their enablers as well:

If you want to meditate on a real double standard, I offer this as a fitting subject for such meditation.