US representative Ro Khanna is consistent. The California Democrat was an outspoken critic of the unauthorized use of military force by former President Donald Trump in the Middle East. He immediately protested when President Joe Biden ordered air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria on February 25. I spoke to Khanna, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and Progressive Congress’s Peace and Security Task Force, about how Democratic Congressmen should respond to military action by a Democratic President. – John Nichols
JN: Why did one have to speak so quickly and courageously about Biden’s decision to bomb Syria?
RK: I said to myself I would try not to criticize the president for the first 100 days. I want so badly for the President to succeed. It is important to our party. It is important to our country. But I also didn’t expect the president to bomb the Middle East in the first 100 days.
I found it so important that Congress take a stand early and make a claim, set a clear marker, that we cannot continue the counterproductive cycle of escalation and bombing in the Middle East. Of course, we can’t go on without it [the president] Come to Congress to approve military force and try to work in a coalition with the United Nations under international law.
JN: Aside from the broader principles, there were specific concerns about this mission, right?
RK: This was not an imminent threat. It wasn’t that our troops were stationed there, and there was information that the troops would be in danger in 24 hours or 48 hours, or even a week, if the President did not act. I mean, this was a threat of retaliation and it was clearly not approved even under a tortured reading of the AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001].
I mean, [this strike] was against Iranian militias in Syria. If anything, President Obama had tried to seek approval in Syria and failed, and so the Congressional report was, in fact, against escalation in the Middle East.
We cannot imagine the president having discretion when it comes to a small attack. However, if it’s a big attack, the president has to come to Congress – since small attacks often escalate into big attacks.
JN: It was noteworthy that several Senate Democrats raised concerns. Do you think Democrats have a better understanding of the importance of speaking out when there is a Democratic President?
RK: I do! We saw Tim Kaine, who I think carries a lot of weight because he is a very respected voice across the ideological spectrum on foreign policy issues, came out and was critical. We saw Chris Murphy do that and Bernie Sanders did that.
I think the White House has taken note. It was no coincidence that a few days later there was an open discussion about how we should have a new conversation about authorizing military force in Congress, and that the President supports this and assists Congress in carrying out its role. I have read from the reporting – and of course I have no information on it – but the reports that I have read [indicate] that it has given the White House a break from further strikes against the Iranian militia or in Syria. So I think it was very important to speak early, as it set the tone that Congress will not be overtaken by the executive on issues of war and peace, and that these issues are greater than party loyalty.
JN: Creating a new AUMF is dangerous. Really needs to try to define what is authorized, right?
RK: Well, John, you hit the nail on the head what the challenge was. Every time [US Representative] Barbara Lee forms a stronger coalition to repeal the AUMF. The debate continues in “Well, what will replace him?” One point that should be consistent in all respects is a sunset clause – that these approvals should not last longer than ideally a congressional term.