Jonathan Stevenson is a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a lawyer. He served on the National Security Council staff as Director for Political-Military Affairs, Middle East and North Africa, from 2011 to 2013. (May 2019)
The similarities between the current situation and the prelude to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2002–2003 are unmistakable. A pugnacious and insecure US president obsessed with a government he has demonized is unconstrained due to a disrupted interagency process and a Congress paralyzed by a cowed and craven Republican Party. Sycophantic advisers and inordinately influential foreign powers insist that he can remake a region purportedly forsaken by his despised liberal predecessor. It is probably lost on Bolton and Pompeo—and certainly on Trump—that the US intervention in Iraq ended up increasing Iranian influence there and elsewhere in the region. It may also be lost on them that a war with Iran could be even more disastrous than the war in Iraq.
President Trump appears to be testing the American political system’s tolerance for soft dictatorship through the cavalier—and potentially illegal—use of presidential emergency powers. On February 15, after months of blustery threats, he declared a national emergency on the southern US border and dispatched the Army Corps of Engineers to administer the construction of a wall by private contractors in order to stop the flow of migrants and drugs into the country from Mexico. Congress has delegated to the president broad authority to invoke a national emergency, presidents have done it dozens of times, and the courts have shown little appetite for questioning the president’s emergency powers. But the legal, political, and factual background to Trump’s declaration illuminates its egregiousness.
It’s a bullish time for executive power. President Donald Trump’s conception of it is so expansive that he has asserted that he can pardon himself. The Supreme Court has reinforced that conception by upholding Trump’s blatantly anti-Muslim executive order restricting immigration. Trump’s belief that presidential authority is practically monarchical, his belligerent posturing toward countries such as Iran and North Korea, and his cavalier disregard for legal procedure have made many observers wonder if he will try to start a catastrophic war, and what safeguards exist to constrain him if he does.
H.R. McMaster was known for speaking truth to power, and he appeared to have the organizational skills and command bearing befitting a three-star general. His unblinking academic criticism of national security officials reflected a conviction that officers were obliged to avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors, even if it meant challenging their superiors. One year ago, the optimistic view—I held it, as did others—was that McMaster would stand up to Trump. Yet as national security adviser, he has channeled Trump’s “Make America Great Again” jingoism.
The most realistic short-term US policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict. This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere.