Listening to Republicans on Capitol Hill gush over President Trump’s decision last week to send nearly 60 high-tech Tomahawk missiles to damage a relatively low-tech Syrian airbase, an observer would be easily led to believe that Trump had in that moment transmogrified from Boy President to Man President -- his Bar Mitzvah moment.
In fact, serious questions can and should be raised regarding the thought process underlying Trump’s decision, the timing of it, and the legal and constitutional foundation for it.
First, supporters, including Sens. Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, and a bevy of their GOP colleagues, praised the missile strike as morally justified because, just days before Syrian Air Force jets dropped chemical ordinance on areas in which civilians were known to reside, and apparently dozens did die. Absent from published reports was any mention of whether ISIS or other rebel opponents of President Assad’s regime met similar fate in the attack; but the images of civilian casualties the media chose to display were sufficient to nearly bring Donald Trump to tears and push him into the favored mode of post-911 presidents – Commander-in-Chief. Donning that headgear, Trump ordered the massive Tomahawk missile strike against a Syria government air base from US Navy ships offshore in the Mediterranean.
Obviously, slightly less recent images of other Syrian civilians killed by traditional, explosive devices as opposed to those containing chemical agents, were insufficiently provocative to the President to warrant military action; as were the reports of many thousands of civilians killed over the past years in the Syrian civil war between government forces, ISIS, and various other sectarian groups vying for power in that country, including some backed heavily by the Iranian regime and others enjoying support from Russia.
The moral inconsistencies of Trump’s explanation for last Thursday’s military action aside, the sparse legal justification provided is even weaker. The strike was necessary, the commander-in-chief said, because it was based on “vital national security interests” of the United States.” Paying lip-service to this element of American military policy is standard operating procedure, but the words, without substance, mean nothing.
What exactly are America’s “vital national security interests” that suddenly were at stake last week in Syria’s multi-year domestic civil war; interests so urgent and vital that they demanded a massive American military response? Aside from Trump’s supporters heralding the fact that “we now have a President who is unafraid to take decisive military action,” what has been proven? What has been accomplished? And based on what real American interests and constitutional and legal authority?
The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) was cited by congressional leaders as a clear and “unquestionable” legal basis for the Syrian strikes. Really? A 16-year old congressional Resolution, the terms of which are explicitly limited to action against those responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001, justifies the use of America’s military against a Syrian government that – while clearly brutal in its actions against citizens in its ongoing civil war – had no connection to the 9-11 attacks against the United States? The argument citing the 2001 AUMF is not one easily made with a straight face, but Senators citing it were up to the task.
What about the fact that Assad’s use of bombs containing chemical agents is prohibited by international treaty and protocol? A fair question; and one that puts Assad on the wrong end of international law. But there is nothing in those treaties and protocols, or in U.S. law, that provides legal mandate for the United States or any other nation opposed to what Assad did, to take unilateral military action for an alleged violation not directed against them.
If it is now the U.S. government’s position that any nation we decide violates an international treaty or protocol regarding use of force involving certain weapons, is subject to being on the receiving end of American military “retaliation,” we would be engaging in exactly what President Trump said days before he did not want to do -- be the world’s policeman. Moreover, when his predecessors engaged in similar actions (in Libya, for example), the consequences were far from positive from the standpoint of our national security interests.
Many on Capitol Hill will continue to cheer the new-found chutzpah of the neophyte President, and his political base will raise him even higher; but the confusion sown by his actions, in terms of legality, constitutionality, consistency, and sound international policy will present problems down the road that will not easily be resolved in that part of the world or elsewhere, including North Korea and Russia.