Typically on the opposite sides of most Washington debates, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) agree on this: President Trump needs to deliver a “comprehensive strategy” to deal with the Syrian morass.
Both high-profile senators — and potential presidential candidates — used those words in statements delivered in the wake of the joint missile strikes delivered Friday by U.S., British and French forces. The sentiment was echoed by lawmakers across the political spectrum who seized on the retaliatory attack — delivered to deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons — to rekindle twin debates about America’s interests abroad and the president’s power to take military action absent congressional approval.
But members of Congress, and both parties, are divided on what that strategy should be and how much latitude Trump and his successors should be given to intervene in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
“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,” Warren tweeted Friday.
Rubio, who wants to give presidents a wide berth to act, didn’t mention congressional approval in his statement. He called for “a real and comprehensive strategy for ending Assad’s threat to his people, to the region and to U.S. security, and for countering Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian dictatorship’s ongoing barbarity.”
Friday’s strikes came as the Senate prepared a new push to consider a revised Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, to supersede those passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and ahead of the 2003 Iraq invasion, which have been used to justify American military interventions ever since.
But more than five years of debate about the U.S. role in Syria and whether military action there is even legal have failed to generate a consensus strategy or a new AUMF despite a firm push from key players in Congress to reassert the body’s constitutional role in warmaking.
Lawmakers from both parties who have advocated a restrained approach to using military force excoriated the Trump administration for not first seeking congressional consent.
Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), a leading Democratic voice for a new AUMF, called it “illegal” and “reckless” without a broader strategy: “Today it’s a strike on Syria — what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?”
Kaine, who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket against Trump in 2016, and others also pointed to a tweet from 2013.
“The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” Trump tweeted then, days after a chemical attack on a rebel stronghold, which prompted President Barack Obama and Western allies to consider retaliatory attacks.
That comment was made at a moment when Obama appeared poised to act. But the president — wary of another messy Middle Eastern intervention — instead left the decision to Congress, which ultimately did not act after weeks of debate.
Since then, the need for a strategy in Syria, as well as a formal congressional authorization for military action, has been a frequent topic of discussion on Capitol Hill. But lawmakers have found it easier to call for those things than to come to grips with the complications and implications of doing so.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Saturday that the strikes reflected an overt policy decision to be “the chemical weapons police” and no more.
“The administration does have a strategy — and it’s to withdraw from Syria as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement, critiquing a hands-off policy that he said would strengthen the hands of Russia and Iran, both key Syrian allies. “Ignoring the situation in Syria, simply saying — Not Our Problem — was a losing strategy when President Obama adopted it five years ago. And it’s a losing strategy still today.”
Trump ordered Friday’s strikes just weeks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up a proposed replacement for existing war authorizations, now almost two decades old. The new AUMF is not expected to cover action against the Assad regime in Syria but against extremist and terrorist groups operating both in Syria and elsewhere.
The administration did not use existing AUMFs as legal justification for the attack but instead, as it did when striking Syria last year after a previous chemical attack, declared it lawful under the president’s authority under Article II of the Constitution, which defines executive branch power.
Mike Pompeo, who served in the House and then as CIA director before being nominated as secretary of state, said in his confirmation hearing last week that he would support a new AUMF.
Top congressional leaders mostly sidestepped calls for a more thorough vetting of the U.S. approach to Syria and the congressional role in it. Republican leaders have been wary of bringing up an AUMF for debate before and are hesitant to debate divisive topics in an election year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the strikes “well-considered,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered support for the “pinpointed, limited action,” and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) praised the “decisive action.”
Only House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) explicitly backed those calling on Trump to seek an authorization from Congress, though Schumer has frequently called for the same.
The strikes have given anti-interventionists on both sides of the ideological divide fuel to call for a more aggressive legislative role.
“These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal and reckless,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), calling on the next House speaker to “reclaim congressional war powers” and charging Ryan — who announced his retirement this past week — with “completely abdicat[ing] one of his most important responsibilities.”
At a news conference last week, Ryan said Trump had sufficient authorization to strike Syria already and warned against adopting a more restrictive one.
“The last thing I want to see is an AUMF that makes it much more difficult for our military to respond to keep us safe, because they have the authority to do that right now,” he said Thursday.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.