Opinion: Congress’ Passive Response to North Korea: ‘Not My Table’

Lawmakers need to step up

When dealing with President Donald Trump — especially when problems with North Korea are looming — members of Congress should remember that they are part of a co-equal branch of government, Shapiro writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
When dealing with President Donald Trump — especially when problems with North Korea are looming — members of Congress should remember that they are part of a co-equal branch of government, Shapiro writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted August 15, 2017 at 5:02am

Just as he did back during Black History Month in February with his startling discovery that Frederick Douglass “is being recognized more and more,” Donald Trump demonstrated in Monday’s White House statement on Charlottesville, Virginia, that he can learn and grow in office.

In 48 short hours, Trump discovered that “racism is evil” and groups like “the KKK, neo-Nazis [and] white supremacists … are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Whoever was Trump’s weekend tutor on hate groups did a bang-up job, since presumably this was the 71-year-old president’s first introduction to the topic.

Since news cycles (even under Trump) are somewhat predictable, it is a safe bet that attention will now pivot back to the nuclear tripwire on the Korean peninsula.

The New York Times reported Monday that North Korea appears to have illegally obtained the rocket engines powering its new intercontinental ballistic missiles from a Soviet-era factory in eastern Ukraine. Such international arms smuggling would explain why Kim Jong Un’s regime has been able to demonstrate stunning advances in missile technology in less than a year.

The Times report suggests that Kim Jong Un does have the power to make good on his provocative threat to land a test missile within 20 miles of the coast of Guam. That, of course, might tempt Trump to make good on his apocalyptic promise to answer North Korea with “fire and fury.”

Without minimizing the long-term threat posed by North Korea to stability in Asia, there are — by virtually all accounts — no plausible military options. Seoul, the South Korean capital, is less than 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone established with the 1953 armistice that marked the de facto end of the Korean War.

Worst-case scenario

The problem is that in global affairs, as in so much else, Trump is a bull traveling with his own china shop. Many worry that through bravado, bluster or bumbling, the president could blunder into a military conflict with a nuclear-armed rogue state. In the worst imaginable case, nuclear weapons could be used in combat for the first time like Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Senate Democrats reacted to Trump’s threats against North Korea with nervous concern.

Chuck Schumer attacked the president’s “reckless rhetoric” and Dianne Feinstein warned against Trump’s “bombastic comments.” Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan chimed in by calling for “calmness, credibility and strategic focus.”

But, for the most part, Congress has adopted a “not my table” approach to the fast-escalating war of words with North Korea. Aside from occasional expressions of hope that Congress would be briefed before any military moves, the prevailing attitude was that nuclear strategy belongs to the White House and the Pentagon.

In theory, America and the world do not have to be held hostage to Trump’s strategic whims. Article One of the Constitution grants Congress the power “to declare war.” But the last time that Congress accepted this grave responsibility was in 1942 when it formally expanded the war in Europe to cover the Nazi-dominated regimes in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.

During the Cold War, Congress stood passively aside as presidents usurped its constitutional powers.

Harry Truman was able to wage the Korean War (labeled a “police action”) under United Nations auspices, since the Soviet Union was boycotting the Security Council in 1950. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used the dubious Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (passed in 1964 with only two dissenting votes in Congress) to justify the entire Vietnam War.

The hair-trigger realities of the Cold War inevitably left Congress on the sidelines. With the balance of terror depending on America’s ability to launch a devastating nuclear response to a Soviet attack, there was no practical way to involve Congress when it was 20 minutes until doomsday.

America’s conflicts since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 have been wars of choice. Both the Gulf War and the Iraqi invasion were, at least, authorized by Congress, even though there were no formal declarations of war. So, too, was the global war against al-Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Pushing back

But these days, Congress seems about as likely to break out the inkwells and spittoons as it is to reassert its war-making powers. Despite the bipartisan Senate efforts of Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jeff Flake, there is no serious interest in updating the 2001 authorization for use of military force against al-Qaida to cover the global battle against the Islamic State and its allies.

But the current nuclear standoff between a loose-cannon president and a potentially unhinged North Korean despot should provoke Congress to reassert its constitutional powers. Barring a nuclear attack on the United States (as opposed to an unarmed missile splashdown in the seas off Guam), there is no military need for precipitous action against North Korea.

When the march to war is a reflective decision, then Congress should play the activist role that the Founding Fathers intended.

Instead of concentrating on Trump’s threats, the nation could instead follow the debate in Congress over the proper course of action against North Korea.

The only way to cope with the Imperial Presidency is for Congress to remember that it remains a co-equal branch of government.

Instead of the president impulsively threatening “fire and fury,” it would be far healthier for our democracy if Trump, in the future, were forced to go to Congress to ask for a declaration of war.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.