The President’s Hands Should Remain Tied on Taiwan

October 20, 2021 Topic: Taiwan Region: East Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: War Powers ActAUMFChina-Taiwan WarElaine LuriaIndo-Pacific

The President’s Hands Should Remain Tied on Taiwan

Congresswoman Elaine Luria’s reckless proposal to “untie” the president’s hands on Taiwan would solve nonexistent problems while further diminishing Congress’ war powers and potentially increasing the likelihood of a war between two nuclear-armed states.


As the only House Democrat to vote against repealing the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq, second-term Congresswoman Elaine Luria is proving to have an alarmingly expansive view of the president’s authority to independently wage war. More broadly, with her career in the U.S. Navy, centrist stances on domestic policy, and unusually hawkish foreign policy views, Luria reflects the growing trend of Democratic House candidates with backgrounds in national security running as domestic moderates and foreign policy hawks. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Luria takes it as a given that the United States should intervene in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan and calls for Congress to “untie” President Joe Biden’s hands to grant him the legal authority to do so without consulting Congress. Luria is not the only member of Congress who has recently supported this idea. Republican lawmakers have introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which Luria described as “a good starting point,” that would allow the president to intervene if China attempted to invade Taiwan.

Determining America’s response to a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan deserves a robust debate within Congress that is rooted in a frank assessment of the United States’ interests in Taiwan, the prospects of an American victory, and the risks of such a war. Luria’s call to “untie” Biden’s hands would prevent this essential debate from taking place and fails to acknowledge the very real risks that a war with China would bring. While the defense contractors that build ships in Luria’s district and funded her campaign may be pleased by her reckless and short-sighted proposal, Luria’s colleagues in Congress must reject it and instead fight to reclaim their war powers.


The War Powers Lessons of the Post-9/11 Wars

To put it bluntly, the president’s hands are supposed to be tied in matters of war. While it’s easy to forget due to Congress’ abdication of its war powers over the past two decades, the Constitution and the War Powers Act very clearly require the president to receive authorization from Congress to carry out military interventions. “Untying” the president’s hands would only further diminish Congress’ most important power by preemptively authorizing a war with a nuclear-armed state over an issue that is peripheral to core American interests. As Biden himself put it in 2001, “Under the Constitution, as well as the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, the commitment of U.S. forces to the defense of Taiwan is a matter the president should bring to the American people and Congress.” Biden must have the courage to reaffirm the views he expressed in 2001 and refuse to entertain Luria’s call to make Congress even less involved in decisions of war and peace.

To her credit, Luria recognizes that “the president has no legal authority, without the express authorization of Congress, to use military force to defend Taiwan.” However, our Founders and those who passed the War Powers Resolution in response to the Vietnam War—a war justified by a Congressional resolution that gave the president expansive powers not unlike those Luria recommends—did not intend for Congressional approval to serve as a blank check for hypothetical future wars. Rather, they aimed to prevent presidents from unilaterally entering unwise wars by requiring Congress to evaluate a war’s merits and vote on an authorization, something that cannot be done if Congress authorizes a war that would be waged at an unknown time and in an unknown context.

In Luria’s eyes, the constraints that have been very intentionally placed on presidential war powers are merely burdens that can be avoided with legislative tricks. Although Luria’s remarkable euphemism of “untying” the president’s hands may make it sound like a mild proposal, it would amount to giving the president and his successors a rubber stamp of approval to unilaterally take the United States to war over Taiwan.

Luria claims that “The time for this debate in Congress is now, not when conflict occurs.” Politicians certainly might prefer to take a low-risk vote on a preemptive authorization without the possibility of nuclear war looming over their heads. But while it might be politically convenient for some, doing so would ensure that the atrophy of Congress’ war powers that characterized the “War on Terror” continues into the era of “great power competition.” In addition, putting the president in the position of having to reject an already approved war authorization could, as Biden might put it, “jam” the president into intervening.  

By effectively ceding its war powers to the executive branch over the past two decades and enabling four consecutive presidents to police the world as they pleased, Congress emboldened presidents to get the United States entangled in strategic blunders and allowed leaders to create or worsen humanitarian crises without fear of ever facing accountability. In rushing to carry out interventions based on flimsy pretexts in countries such as Iraq and Libya, the United States failed to account for the unintended consequences that could be caused by American military force. The rapid success in overthrowing Saddam Hussein was followed by rampant sectarian violence, the rise of the Islamic State, a massive increase in Iranian influence in Iraq, and 200,000 civilian deaths. Similarly, after President Barack Obama contradicted his own previously stated views on presidential war powers and intervened in Libya without Congressional authorization, Libya fell into a state of anarchy and civil war that continues today, allowing the establishment of an Islamic State stronghold and fostering instability that still reverberates throughout the region.  

Most of Congress stood by as the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs—initially portrayed as authorizations for military operations against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and Saddam’s regime—were used to justify operations in at least seven countries and strikes against terrorist organizations that did not even exist in 2001. As Congress’ authorizations were being stretched beyond recognition to provide the legal justification for Obama’s expansive drone war, Congress also showed little interest in oversight of the war in Afghanistan. By failing to provide adequate oversight, Congress became complicit in the lack of a coherent strategy and the corruption that, as American officials were privately acknowledging, made the war unwinnable. In addition, Congress’ disinterest in oversight helped the war drift out of the political debate and the minds of the American people, allowing the doomed and costly effort to be drawn out for years.

After paying little attention to the war while it was being waged, members of Congress have suddenly become interested in oversight now that the Potemkin Afghan state has fallen, turning an opportunity to ask hard questions to leaders involved in the $2 trillion debacle into a chance to score political points. While it might have been more subtle than the recent displays in Congressional hearings, was Luria’s heavily publicized op-ed aimed at informing readers about the importance of defending Taiwan—a position that less than half of Americans support—or an attempt to bolster her credentials as a hawk?   

Most members of Congress appeared to believe that their jobs were done once they voted for the AUMFs in the early 2000s. The only problem was that the AUMFs took on minds of their own once they were provided to the president and were used to justify military operations that Congress could not have even imagined when they voted for them. When considering any preemptive authorization regarding Taiwan, lawmakers must reflect on the fact that the 2001 AUMF continues to be twisted to justify military action around the globe. While the potential risks of a war over Taiwan may be different than those that stemmed from the post-9/11 wars, America’s hubristic failures in the Middle East should make leaders think deeply about the implications of a conflict with China. Congress cannot be allowed to duck its responsibility to vigorously debate the possibility of going to war in defense of Taiwan by voting to authorize a future war when a Chinese invasion is not imminent.

The Problems with a Pre-Authorization for War

Setting aside the merits and feasibility of an American intervention to repel a Chinese invasion, there is a glaring flaw in Luria’s argument. Luria asserts that “Waiting to seek congressional approval until after China acts would likely cause an insurmountable delay in responding to a hostile action by China to seize Taiwan militarily.” However, as China cannot just snap its fingers and mount an invasion overnight, the United States would almost certainly have intelligence indicating that China was preparing for an invasion, giving the president sufficient time to consult Congress as he is required to do. While Luria is concerned that the “severe limitations” of the Constitution and the War Powers Act might cause an “insurmountable delay,” providing authorization for a war to be carried out in unknowable circumstances in the future is an incredibly reckless proposal. By altering the status quo and signaling the possibility of a change to the “strategic ambiguity” approach that has successfully deterred a Chinese invasion for four decades, the United States could needlessly provoke China and ultimately make a Chinese invasion more likely. Luria’s proposal would solve nonexistent problems while potentially increasing the likelihood of a war between two nuclear-armed states.