The starkest difference between dictatorships and democracies is that democracies are ruled by laws, and dictatorships are ruled by dictators.
The “rule of law,” as it’s often referred to, stands for laws that emerge from a process responsive to the majority, that are consistently applied, and are applicable to everyone regardless of their position or power.
President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand this. Within a matter of days, Trump has bombed Syria and a group of fighters in eastern Afghanistan.
On April 12, Trump authorized the Pentagon to drop a 22,000-pound GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (MOAB) on people described as “Islamic State forces” in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border.
It’s the first time this bomb — nicknamed the “mother of all bombs,” and the largest air-dropped munition in the U.S. military’s inventory — has ever been used in a combat.
It’s the largest explosive device America has utilized since dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. (By comparison, U.S. aircraft commonly drop bombs that weigh between 250 to 2,000 pounds.)
Why, exactly? It’s not clear. And what was Trump’s authority to do this? Even less clear.
We still don’t know exactly why Trump bombed Syria. He said it was because Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons on innocent civilians, including children.
But it wasn’t the first time Assad had used chemical weapons. When he did in 2013, Trump counseled against bombing Syria in response.
And where did Trump get the authority to bomb Syria? Assad is a vicious dictator who does terrible things to his people. But U.S. law doesn’t authorize presidents to go to war against vicious dictators who do terrible things to their people.
The Constitution leaves it up to Congress, not the president, to declare war.
In 2014, President Barack Obama began hostilities against the Islamic State, arguing that Congress’s approval of George W. Bush’s wars against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2002 provided him sufficient to authority.
Well, maybe. But there’s no way Trump can rely on Congress’s approval of these wars to bomb Syria.
And it’s a stretch to argue that a group claiming or alleged to be connected to ISIS, but located in eastern Afghanistan far away from where ISIS is attempting to establish an Islamic State, is the same as the Islamic State.
In a democracy, the rule of law means that we the people are supposed to be in charge, through our elected representatives in Congress.
It can be a heavy responsibility. It is especially weighty when it comes to warfare, to the destruction and annihilation of human beings.
As commander-in-chief, a president is empowered to manage the military might of the nation. But he is not empowered to initiate warfare on his own. That’s our job.
The world according to Trump is becoming increasingly dangerous, in part because we are not doing our job.