President Donald Trump declared “mission accomplished” after a joint force of U.S., British and French forces on Saturday attacked three sites in Syria linked to chemical weapons. But it is unclear what that mission is or how the American people can measure its success.
That said, it's not too late to create a specific and strategic U.S. policy toward Syria.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the attack sent a clear message to Syrian President Bashar Assad and would dissuade him from launching any more such attacks on his own people.
But even the Pentagon acknowledged Assad retains enough such facilities to continue brutal attacks on civilians. For its part, Russia complained bitterly about the attacks but appeared uninterested in taking any real action. Assad’s position does not appear to be threatened in any way, despite U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement to CNN a year ago that the administration thinks it's necessary to remove him.
Trump, like his two most recent predecessors, has no defined objectives in Syria, which makes measuring success there impossible.
And while the president’s decision to include Britain and France in Saturday’s attack was an admirable display of multinational resolve, an important subtext to Trump’s decision is the question of constitutional authority.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said before the strike that congressional approval would be necessary, under the Constitution, before launching an attack. He responded afterward by reiterating his concerns, saying no president has the authority to begin a war on his own.
He is correct. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 clarifies the Constitution by allowing presidents to take unilateral action only if the U.S. has been attacked or faces some other sort of imminent national emergency. Otherwise, he is to consult Congress.
Writing for The Atlantic, the University of Baltimore’s Garrett Epps called Trump’s declaration that he would continue military responses to any future Syrian chemical attacks “about as gross a violation of the Constitution as I can think of.”
We’re not sure about that characterization. Previous presidents have shown a similar disdain for the Constitution’s expressly written delineation of war powers — namely, that Congress has power to declare war and the president acts as commander in chief of the armed forces with power to, when authorized, wage war.
But this trend toward ignoring Congress is a troubling one.
President Bill Clinton launched attacks on Kosovo in 1999 despite a lack of congressional authorization.
Likewise, Congress challenged the Obama administration after its military intervention in Libya.
More to the current point, President Barack Obama later sought congressional approval for military involvement in Syria but was rejected. A Republican-controlled Congress then passed a bill expressly defining what the secretary of defense was authorized to do in Syria, adding, “Nothing in this section shall be construed to constitute a specific statutory authorization for the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations wherein hostilities are clearly indicated by the circumstances.”
That didn’t stop Obama from sending troops to Syria, nor has it kept Trump from maintaining them there and launching attacks.
The reason the Constitution gives Congress the power to initiate war is clear. The United States is a republic. Acts of war put American lives at risk and could result in retaliatory attacks. The people’s representatives, not one single leader, must make decisions concerning such things.35 comments on this story
At the least, Congress now should initiate discussions on Syria, deciding whether the president is authorized to continue future military involvement or should be required to stop. To not do so would be to abdicate an important constitutional power.
No one should minimize the brutality of Assad’s attacks on his own civilians. Nor should anyone misunderstand concerns about Russian influence in Syria. But U.S. objectives should be clearly defined and its use of force clearly backed by the deliberative power of the people’s representatives.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated that President Bill Clinton launched attacks on Kosovo in 1991. Clinton took office in 1993, and the attacks occurred in 1999.