Trump could try to get around the need for congressional authorization by adopting controversial former Bush adminstration official John Yoo’s position that the president has constitutional authority to start wars all on his own (I criticized that view here). Alternatively, he could avail himself of the Obama administration’s narrower but equally spurious justifications for its unauthorized wars against Libya and ISIS. Leaving this loaded gun to Trump is among Obama’s worst legacies. If Trump adopts either the Yoo rationale for circumventing Congress or the Obama administration’s, it would be a very dangerous development.
Closely related to the issue of broader action is the question of what exactly the US government hopes to accomplish here. In and of itself, yesterday’s action is unlikely to change much. The Assad regime will continue the war against its adversaries, and also continue to slaughter civilians. It isn’t even very likely that the strike destroyed much in the way of valuable military assets. The Trump administration warned Russia of the attack in advance, so as to minimize the risk of harming Russian personnel at the base. The Russians in turn, surely warned their Syrian allies, so they could remove any particularly valuable equipment and personnel before the Tomahawk missiles hit.
Perhaps the goal is to enforce the international law ban on using chemical weapons. I have some sympathy for that objective. But the use of conventional weapons to target civilians is also a violation of international law. And Assad and his Russian allies have killed vastly more innocent people by the latter means than the former. Little will have been accomplished if the effect of Trump’s strike is simply to get Assad to substitute one type of illegal mass murder for another. Last night, I heard a CNN analyst say that “Assad could kill as many people as he wanted with conventional weapons. But doing it with chemicals was a big mistake.” Sadly, this seems to be a largely accurate summary of the attitudes of much of the “international community.” It is difficult to understand why the killing of a comparatively small number of civilians with chemical weapons is seen as vastly more significant than far more extensive mass murder by conventional means.
III. The contradiction between Trump’s newfound concern for Assad’s victims and his cruel exclusion of Syrian refugees.
By contrast, attacking Assad poses far greater risks. Among other things, it creates the danger of a clash with Russia, and of strengthening the position of ISIS, the terrorist force whose defeat Trump claims should be a top priority. During the 2016 campaign, Trump even claimed that any “shooting war” with Assad “could very well lead to “World War III.” That was surely an overstatement. But it underscores his seeming awareness that attacking the Syrian regime is a serious risk.
The contradiction between Trump’s cruel refugee policy and his supposed newfound concerns for Assad’s victims suggests that he either does not know what he is doing, does not really care about Syrian civilians, or both. None of these possibilities is a reassuring prospect as we consider what might happen next. At the very least, this provides yet more reason for Congress to reassert its war powers, and to think long and hard before authorizing Trump to take any further military action.
UPDATE: I have made a few modest changes in the wording of this post.