This past Thursday, April 6, at approximately 8:40 EST, President Trump ordered a military strike against the Sharyat airbase in Syria.
This move was in direct response to the chemical weapon attack that occurred in Khan Shaykhun on April 4, killed at least 70 Syrian civilians in the Idlib province.
It represents a severe and sudden change in policy from the Trump administration regarding the ongoing crisis in Syria and specifically its attitude towards the president, Bashar al-Assad. Citizen and candidate Trump had quite famously taken a hard and unequivocal line against Pres Obama getting involved in Syria. During the election he stopped just short of saying that he’d engage Assad as a means of defeating ISIS, saying in the second presidential debate, “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”
This latest chemical attack “crossed a lot of lines” for President Trump (or perhaps for Ivanka, rather) which is reportedly why he moved so decisively and unilaterally. But the strike has seemingly raised more questions than it has answered, questions about the strike’s sum effect, its legality, and what message it is intended to send both abroad and to our citizens. Moreover it raises significant questions about the US’s position and strategy regarding the conflict in Syria and its brutal dictator.
Syria Strike – We have a few questions
While nearly all Americans were surprised by the action, opinions on the military strike are sharply divided, within both wings of our political establishment and among our citizenry. We’ve seen leaders on the left, such as Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, quickly come out in support of the strike. We’ve heard from conservative senators like Rand Paul, along with Democrats like Ted Lieu and Tim Kaine, who believe the strike was executed illegally (because it had no congressional approval) and without proper strategy. And while 79% of senators support the action, plenty of elected officials have been weakly in the middle, supportive but wishing that the POTUS had consulted them first, or hedging their comments to allow for a change in the near future in case this all pans out badly.
Among those with whom I’ve personally discussed the issue, ranging across the political spectrum, in-person and online, strangers and friends, the levels of support and condemnation are even more passionate. Many of those who ardently support the strike view it as a welcome change from the perceived weakness of the Obama administration on foreign policy. Many refer to Obama’s “red line” in 2013 and the importance of maintaining the ban on chemical weapons in modern warfare. Is Pres Trump’s strike the fulfillment of that promise, which resulted in a deal to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapon stockpile, but stalled out militarily when Pres Obama went to Congress for authorization? Will that history determine the administration’s position on executive unilateral action or will they, too, attempt to convince a war-weary American people that a military excursion is both right and necessary?
At a time when the proposed national budget includes severe cuts to social programs while dramatically increasing our already enormous military spending, many raise the objection of detonating $95M of taxpayer money on what amounts to a symbolic strike. Many also raise the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis and the discordance of our bombing a nation while maintaining our current ban on the immigration of their beleaguered citizens here to the US.
Many questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the strike. It has been widely reported that the Russian military were informed of the strike ahead of time, and there are several reports that Syrian forces also/subsequently were informed and given time to move personnel and equipment. Photos of the airbase after the strike clearly reveal that the runway itself was unharmed and that Syrian warplanes were already taking off from the base within 24 hours of the strike, for continued non-chemical bombing of rebel forces.
Syria Strike – What’s the message?
In the conversations I’ve had since Thursday, it would seem that a subset of our population expresses readiness for armed conflict, while many remain weary and wary of new incursions. Some of the most common responses:
What would you have done, nothing?
Both Syria and Russia would be too afraid to take us on in a war.
I’d rather take out North Korea before they take us out. (a direct quote)
And most commonly:
Trump’s action sends a strong message.
But what message, exactly, does it send?
Does it promote a message that the US is back to lead on a global scale, ready to re-assume our role as the world’s policeman, once again ready to make the world safe for democracy? Are we ready for that? Or have we been coaxed into an ill-advised fight, like Marty McFly reacting to Biff calling him “chicken”? Is the strike part of a broader strategy for the nation and region? (Spoiler: it isn’t.)
Is it beneficial because now other political adversaries such as North Korea, to whose coast the Naval Carl Vinson strike group has been deployed this week, will see the US and our leader as unpredictable and therefore might be frightened into scaling back their nefarious actions? Is that the type of deterrent we feel confident employing?
In my opinion, much like our graceless leader, the US is unqualified to lead internationally at this juncture. We’ve made some bad decisions, we don’t win foreign wars, we have low confidence in our elected officials. We shouldn’t be the ones to lead the world and keep it safe and it would have been nice for another nation to step up and fill that role over the last decade and a half. But that didn’t happen and the authoritarian ring-wing believes it is their necessary duty, regardless of qualification or strategy.
They believe military might equals strength, which it indeed does at times, but not necessarily. And when combined with bluster and ignorance it is a frightening tinderbox.
Syria Strike – Was it legal?
There are two questions about the Syria strike that loom larger than these others, in my opinion.
First is the question about the power of the President to wage military action without the voted approval of Congress, as mentioned above. Does the US Constitution imbue, forbid, or leave ambiguous the powers of the POTUS, who is Commander-in-Chief of the military, to launch attacks on a foreign power?
Article I of the US Constitution gives us what is called the War Powers Clause, which grants to Congress alone the power to declare war.
The Congress shall have power … To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water…
When the issue came to relevance during the Mexican-American War, then Senator Abraham Lincoln had this to say on the War Powers Clause:
“The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.”
Some interpret that Article 2 of the Constitution, wherein the President is designated as Commander-in-Chief of the military, to mean he is also inherently given the authority to initiate conflicts. The less controversial interpretation is that he is granted control of our armed forces once a conflict has been declared and begun, but this, too, becomes less clear when we realize that war has not been formally “declared” by the United States since 1941.
The answer to this question of executive power is heavily debated, even in well-informed circles. I recommend this in-depth analysis by Jack Goldsmith, Harvard law professor and former Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Council.
“It is a remarkable fact about the U.S. Constitution that 228 years after its creation, we still don’t know what limits, if any, it imposes on unilateral presidential uses of military force. The original understanding of Congress’s power to “declare War” and the president’s power as chief Executive and “Commander in Chief” are contested. The Supreme Court has never really weighed in beyond saying, during the Civil War, that if “war be made by invasion of a foreign nation, the President is not only authorized but bound to resist force by force.” Constitutional practice over 228 years has seen a slow and steady expansion of unilateral presidential war powers, mostly (with the notable exception of the Swiss cheese War Powers Resolution) with the support or at least seeming-acquiescence of Congress, which supplied the president with a massive powerful standing military force. But the constitutional significance of this practice, while not irrelevant, is hard to fathom.”
The subject is further clouded by the War Powers Act of 1973, created during our entrenchment in Vietnam with the goal of clarifying and limiting executive military power. The law, enacted over Nixon’s Presidential veto, stipulates that the POTUS must inform Congress of any troop deployment within 48 hours, and that no military action can last longer than 60 days without a further resolution from Congress. The Act, though, has had a mostly adverse effect, providing (perceived) loopholes for unauthorized military actions from nearly every POTUS since its enactment, sidestepping the legalities through different rationales. Pres Clinton violated it in Kosovo, Obama in Libya. The 2001 AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) against Terrorism granted Pres Bush a broad gray area, eliminating the mention of specific nations altogether.
With the Supreme Court declining to weigh in on this issue out of fear of politicizing the bench, and supporters and dissenters on the legislative level both ardent in their view, it would seem this question will continue to be decided by executive agenda and controversial precedent.
Syria Strike – What comes next?
The largest and most pressing question about the Syria strike, the one on nearly everyone’s mind both at home and abroad, is what comes next? Are we prepared to go to war in Syria to protect its citizens, 400k of whom have been killed since the civil war began and another 11M made refugees? Will we work to oust the brutal dictator and enact a yet another regime change in the Middle East?
Are we prepared to commit American troops to a third simultaneous foreign war, especially given our losing record? Do we have a plan?
For many of those feeling encouraged and/or accomplished by Thursday’s strike, it seems largely predicated on some notion that Assad and Putin will not respond, that war with the United States is too formidable a fate to invite. What happens if that is not the case?
Both countries publicly condemned the strike on Friday, with Russia saying,
The President of Russia regards the US airstrikes on Syria as an act of aggression against a sovereign state delivered in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext. … This move by Washington has dealt a serious blow to Russian-US relations, which are already in a poor state.
Update: On Monday it was also announced that Russia reportedly dispatched a small fleet to join the Grigorovich.
A joint command center comprised of Iran, Russia, and other Assad-friendly forces went a step further in their statement, saying,
“The United States crossed red lines by attacking Syria, from now on we will respond to anyone, including America if it attacks Syria and crosses the red lines. America knows very well our ability and capabilities to respond well to them, [and] we will respond without taking into consideration any reaction and consequences.”
Even within the Trump administration there seems to be genuine disconnect as to whether removing Assad from power is a crucial step going forward. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and NSA Director H.R. McMaster have stated this week that regime change is both necessary and probably inevitable. Sec of State Rex Tillerson was more reserved saying, “Through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of [Assad]”, while Pres Trump has said of the dictator, “He’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”
I find our lack of strategy to be the most frightening and infuriating part of the Syria strike. Not only was a complete reversal of the President’s stance on Syria and Assad seemingly decided overnight, not only was it a strike on a sovereign nation executed without the proper congressional approval, not only was it symbolic and not at all actually punitive, but we also have no indication of where the President now stands on the issue and what he’ll do next, because even he doesn’t know. What does it say about us that so many are eager to give the power of war to one man with an itchy trigger-finger because we feel our international toughness might be called into question, and that even while we argue about the strategies in our two existing wars, that there are those of us bloodthirsty to jump into a third conflict “over there”?
Do we indeed find ourselves now at the outset of another ugly armed conflict, yet another ethical quagmire impossible to conquer, stretched across years and decades that will further entrench and divide us from each other?
Do we have the power to alter our course?