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Congress Reacts to Syria Strike

by | Apr 15, 2018 | Military Affairs

Reactions have been mixed since the Trump administration, along with France and the U.K., launched missile attacks against Syria, in response to the chemical attack in the city of Douma last week. The strike was aimed at precision targets allegedly used in the creation and storage of chemical weapons around the Syrian capital of Damascus, in what President Trump has called a “perfectly executed” attack. While few on the Hill have questioned the President’s motives in launching the strike, Congress is questioning Trump’s authority to launch an attack without their say-so, with some calling the move unconstitutional.

According to the Defense Department, the missiles were launched in order to “send a message” to President Assad and the rest of the world that chemical attacks would not be tolerated, a mission that has been achieved, it says. Trump has tweeted “mission accomplished” on Syria, a sentiment that the Pentagon and French authorities have echoed, saying that no more action is planned unless more ‘red lines’ are crossed with further chemical attacks. This stance has not pleased hawks in both the Democrat and Republican parties, who are hoping for an ongoing “strategy” in the region.

Constitutional Questions

A mix of Democrats and Republicans have spoken out against Trump’s Syria strike; the majority of objections have not been to the military action itself, but rather to being left out of the decision.

Defense Secretary Mattis said in a statement that “the president has the authority under Article II of the Constitution to use military force overseas to defend important U.S. national interests,” while the constitution does name the president as the Commander in Chief of the military, the authority to declare war is given only to Congress, prompting several legislators to call the strike unconstitutional.

A group of 88 representatives submitted a letter before the strikes, urging the president to “share the burden of decisions” regarding military action in Syria. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) tweeted shortly after the attack was launched that:

“While Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for his unlawful use of chemical weapons against civilians, the strikes that are being carried out are being done without an authorization from Congress, which is unacceptable.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) called the strike “illegal,” saying:

“President Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government without Congress’s approval is illegal and — absent a broader strategy — it’s reckless… Assad must face consequences for his war crimes, but Presidents cannot initiate military action when there isn’t an imminent threat to American lives. .. The last thing Congress should be doing is giving this president a blank check to wage war against anyone, anywhere.”

Kaine was critical of Trump’s 2017 airstrike against a Syrian airbase, pushing for the release of a secret memo that reportedly describes the legal basis for the previous bombing, also taken unilaterally by the Executive. He wrote in a letter to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February:

“I am also concerned that this legal justification may now become precedent for additional executive unilateral military action, including this week’s U.S. airstrikes in Syria against pro-Assad forces… The fact that there is a lengthy memo with a more detailed legal justification that has not been shared with Congress, or the American public, is unacceptable.”

The non-profit organization Protect Democracy has an ongoing lawsuit to obtain the memo following an unmet FOIA request, though Tillerson’s replacement, Mike Pompeo, this week assured Kaine that he would assist in making the memo available to either Congress or the public.

The executive has gradually increased its military powers over recent decades, not least thanks to the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that authorized the president to use military force against terrorists, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack – a law that Kaine recently tried to amend, along with Republican Senator Jeff Flake, in order to transfer back increased powers of oversight to Congress.

The U.K. Connection

Libertarian-leaning Republican representative Thomas Massie tweeted:

“I haven’t read France’s or Britain’s “Constitution,” but I’ve read ours and no where in it is Presidential authority to strike Syria.”

Indeed, similar reprimands have been leveled at British Prime Minister Theresa May by opposition parties who were none too pleased at being overlooked in this decision. Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn called the strikes “legally questionable,” on the basis that the Prime Minister is only authorized to launch a unilateral attack “under the basis of self-defense – if there was a direct threat to us, and there wasn’t.” He continued:

“My whole point is that Parliament should be consulted, parliament should be allowed to take a view on this but, instead, the strikes were launched last night… She claims there’s a legal basis for it. I’ve asked her in a letter I’ve just to sent her this morning to publish in full the legal basis and justification for it.”

Mission Accomplished vs. Broader Strategy

Trump also received some criticism for reacting in the short term with hawks urging the Trump administration to present a long-term strategy in the region. John McCain (R-AZ) praised the strikes, but added that:

“To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region…The president needs to lay out our goals, not just with regard to [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Airstrikes disconnected from a broader strategy may be necessary, but they alone will not achieve U.S. objectives in the Middle East.”

A statement by Nancy Pelosi, though less obviously hawkish, also encouraged longer-term involvement in the region:

“The President must come to Congress and secure an Authorization for Use of Military Force by proposing a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives that keep our military safe and avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians.”

While many legislators have objected to the manner in which strikes were launched in Syria, only a few have criticized the wisdom of further involvement in the region – if Trump did put the matter to Congress, is there much doubt that it would go ahead anyway? Those hesitations have instead fallen to media personalities and prominent Trump supporters such as Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, and even Alex Jones. In the aftermath of the strike, Trump may be pulled in two directions; one way by his non-interventionist supporters and another by D.C. hawks – which side will win?

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