Opinion writer

The Post reports on the American military operation conducted with British and French forces against three chemical weapons sites in Syria:

Syria, Russia and Iran shrugged off strikes on Saturday by the United States and its allies against three Syrian chemical weapons facilities, which drew angry condemnations but no indication that there would be a wider escalation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the U.S.-led strikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities as an “act of aggression,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatalloh Ali Khamenei tweeted that the attack represented “a war crime,” and the Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as “barbarous aggression.”

But the pre-dawn volleys of cruise missiles launched by the United States, Britain and France were limited to three sites linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program and triggered no retaliation. Russia said they did little damage and that most of the cruise missiles targeting Syrian sites had been intercepted by Syrian air defenses, including all of those that were bound for the site from which last week’s alleged chemical attack originated.

Reaction to the strike defied the usual partisan alignment.

President Trump’s right-wing fans excoriated him for engaging in military involvement in the Middle East of the type then-candidate Donald Trump raged against during the campaign.

Meanwhile, although some Democrats railed at the lack of congressional authorization, among the most modulated responses came from, yes, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Chemical attacks in Syria are horrifying, and a clear violation of international law. The world must hold Assad accountable for his violence against the Syrian people – and the US should be part of a planned, coordinated multilateral effort,” she tweeted. “The Constitution gives Congress the power to authorize military action. If [Trump] wants to expand American military involvement in Syria’s civil war, he must seek approval from Congress – & provide a comprehensive strategy with clear goals & a plan to achieve them.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likewise was also careful not to insist Congress authorize what amounted to “pinprick” strikes but warned the president about the need to develop a coherent plan in consultation with Congress. “This latest chemical weapons attack against the Syrian people was a brutally inhumane war crime that demands a strong, smart and calculated response. One night of airstrikes is not a substitute for a clear, comprehensive Syria strategy,” she said in a written statement. “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 conservative lawmakers praised Trump without demanding an explanation for U.S. objectives, anti-interventionist libertarians such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) joined left-leaning lawmakers and outside groups in denouncing the raid as illegal.

The operation was, in our view, a mixed bag — with some good, some bad and some ugly aspects.

Let’s start on the positive side:

  • Our military’s effectiveness in carrying out whatever mission is assigned remains impressive.
  • The limited nature of the strikes suggests Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remains the most influential foreign policy voice, which is reassuring for those who see him as a more reasonable figure than national security adviser John Bolton.
  • Our decision to work with allies was wise, ironically re-emphasizing that despite Trump’s dismissive attitude toward alliances and America First puffery, even he understands that we benefit when we work in concert with allies. One can only hope that this experience influences Trump’s apparent determination to break with allies and go it alone in renouncing the Iran nuclear deal. If we want help from them on missions like Syria, it’s best not to disregard their interests on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
  • Trump’s remarks Friday night were appropriate for the occasion and included much deserved condemnation of Iran and Russia.

Now the bad:

  • There is zero evidence we have a coherent Syria policy. What if Bashar al-Assad uses some of the “residual” chemical weapons he still possesses? Why is barrel bombing civilians any less atrocious than using chemical weapons? Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin tweeted that, while it is “good that we have degraded Assad’s capability to drop [chemical weapons] on innocent kids,” it is evident from the  Pentagon briefing that our action “is still not connected to any broader strategy likely to enhance [the] US impact on war’s outcome, get Assad out of power, protect allies, or recover US influence in MidEast.”
  • Assad has used chemical weapons repeatedly since our last strike in 2017. What’s the criteria we use for deciding to act? Is the lesson that small uses of chemical weapons are fine, but we will act once a chemical attack makes the news?
  • Our unwillingness to do anything but the bare minimum militarily (e.g., not knock out Assad’s air force to create some safe havens, for example) means Assad, Iran and Russia feel little if any pressure to end the conflict.
  • Given how limited in scope and time were the strikes, I do not believe that congressional authorization was legally required, However, it is almost always the case that getting Congress on board is of benefit to the president. There is no reason — other than incompetence and confusion — the administration has not, and it appears unwilling to lay out a updated policy for Syria (and the region more generally) and seek an updated authorization for use of military force. As former secretary of state George P. Shultz liked to say, if you want members of Congress there on the landing, you better have them on the takeoff.
  • Trump’s hyped-up rhetoric and his promise to “sustain” action against Syria once again fell into the overpromise/underdeliver category. He is unintentionally conveying to Russia and other adversaries that his bark is invariably worse than his bite. (Moreover, there was a disconnect between Trump’s expansive rhetoric and Mattis’s statements that this is essentially a one-and-done operation.)
  • Trump’s refusal to take in Syrian refugees is a moral abomination and entirely inconsistent with our stated concern for the welfare on innocents.

Finally, the ugly: Americans may rightly fret that the strike, while justified on the merits, has something to do with Trump’s legal travails (e.g., the raid on his attorney’s office, James B. Comey’s book release). The queasy feeling that the president’s decision to use military force — or even the timing of the strike — may be influenced by personal, political factors underscores the degree to which the president has forfeited his moral authority and undermined his credibility. We should never be in the position of doubting the commander in chief’s motives, but with this president it’s impossible not to suspect he’s acting out of self-interest, not out of concern for the national interest. It sure doesn’t help when in the presence of his military and civilian advisers he launches a rant about the Cohen raid.

Frankly, we have a president whose honesty and judgment have been called into question again and again by his own conduct and rhetoric. Would we really trust him to dispassionately assess the advisability of a first strike against North Korea or Iran? It is imperative that Congress act to constrain his ability to launch destructive and risky wars that go far beyond blowing up chemical weapons depots. Congress must speak with one voice in declaring that such action would constitute a declaration of war, which only Congress can authorize.