Congress, experts frightened by Trump's eagerness to strike Syria

As the world awaits Trump's impending action on Syria, his "lack of constitutional authority" stirs grave concerns

Published April 11, 2018 6:31PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Spencer Platt/AP/Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Salon)
(Getty/Spencer Platt/AP/Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Salon)

President Donald Trump all but confirmed that the United States will soon strike the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as he communicated in a threatening Wednesday morning tweet in which he taunted Russia and suggested American missiles were "coming" in Syria.

Trump's tweet came in response to a warning from Russia's ambassador to Lebanon, who said any U.S. missile hurled towards Syria, as well as its source, would be shot down. Trump's impending action in Syria followed a chemical attack last week that killed dozens and was allegedly carried out by the Assad regime.

"Trump’s taunting tweets are ridiculous and dangerous, as well as totally inconsistent with his stated view that it’s dumb to alert the enemy to what you plan to do and when you plan to do it," Laurence Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School told Salon. "Trump has put the United States in a box. If he acts on his threats, he’ll have given Assad, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and the [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah [Ali Khamenei] advance warning and endangered our military.

He added, "If he doesn’t act on his threats, he’ll make America look like a paper tiger and will have undermined our credibility yet again on the world stage. Sad."

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., blasted Trump's Twitter threats as "dangerous," "outrageous," and said "it's not presidential," in an interview with Salon.

But aside from the "stable genius" idea to ignite wars via Twitter, any action from Trump — just like his strike on a Syrian airfield last April — has drawn serious constitutional concerns as well as concerns about what Trump's broader strategy in Syria actually is, if anything.

"I agree with [Rep.] Jim Himes [D-Conn.] and other members of Congress that the president lacks constitutional authority to attack Syria without congressional authorization," Tribe told Salon. "Commander in Chief power to protect Americans on the ground in Syria would presumably be his justification, but I doubt that will suffice as a constitutional matter. The same was true of last year’s strike."

He added, "Whether a strike on humanitarian grounds now would count as a serious enough abuse of power to add to the list of this president’s impeachable offenses down the road is another, more difficult, question."

The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed near-unanimously by legislators in the days after the 9/11 attacks, "doesn't cover this situation," Tribe explained. This is because the AUMF was only intended to allow the president to use "necessary and appropriate force" against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks, which was the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda.

The AUMF was also used by former President Barack Obama to justify attacks against the Islamic State, which, as The Atlantic's Peter Beinart wrote "was dubious enough, given that the Islamic State didn’t exist in 2001."

"This administration, the Obama administration and the Bush administration used that authorization to justify this state of perpetual war, and that has got to stop," Lee told Salon.

The Oakland Democrat, who has long been outspoken about endless U.S. wars in the Middle East and beyond, told Salon that a "comprehensive plan" is needed, not just a one-off strike, or a "military-first" strategy.

"We do have to be outraged with regard to the use of chemical weapons on innocents in Syria. We need to come together with the international community to make sure that Assad is prosecuted as a war criminal, which is what he is," she explained. "But engaging in military action — especially unilateral military action — does not do anything to address the issue of chemical weapons."

She noted that it also fails to address the broader issues at hand in the Syrian civil war, such as the refugee crisis. Rep. Lee explained she has been working with Republicans and Democrats "to demand that Congress take a vote and debate an authorization as it relates to Syria," but largely to no avail.

"I'm very concerned that these drumbeats of war will engage us deeper in this open-ended civil war in Syria," Lee told Salon.

Action is needed by Congress, "now more than ever," she said, and the public needs to demand action as well. That sentiment rings especially true as infamous neoconservative hawk John Bolton was recently appointed as National Security Adviser, and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo awaits a Senate confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Sate.

Still, despite a few notable exceptions, Senate Republicans have largely expressed support for Trump to strike Assad. Notable dissenters included Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., while Sen. Mike Lee, R.-Utah, was skeptical of Trump's ability to strike Syria without congressional approval.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, blasted the notion that Trump could bypass Congress, once again, and strike Syria. "If [Trump] strikes Syria without our approval, what will stop him from bombing North Korea or Iran?" he told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.

The widespread concern for Trump's plans for Syria seems particularly pertinent given that last week Trump split with senior military officials and expressed he wanted to completely withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria. Indeed, Trump's motivations for military intervention are unclear; the president is uninterested in humanitarian concerns, as evidenced by comments he's made along with civilian deaths from missile strikes during his first year in office.

"This is a situation I think we've seen before, where the president wants to be seen as strong," Dan Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute told Salon. "But it doesn't seem linked to any kind of broader understanding or attempt to shape events on the ground in a way that's going to have lasting impact."

He added, "We've done such a strike before, and whether it's attacking an airbase or [a] limited military strike I don't think is going to decisively change Assad's calculus on this."

Byman pointed out that theres also the question of a potential serious confrontation and escalation with Russia, "and to my knowledge, Trump hasn't thought through the implications of that."

Byman continued, "So I'm worried that we're rushing ahead and — especially sending a live message with rhetoric — that we're not necessarily going to back up in the long term policy."

It's worth noting, however, that even if Trump went to Congress prior to taking action, it's not clear if lawmakers would ultimately even vote against giving the president the authority he would be seeking. Which means that there is little hope the U.S. won't find itself barreling towards another potential military intervention in the Middle East with a president that doesn't have a clear strategy.

But it's not exactly synonymous with the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. In fact, the consequences could prove to be more dire considering that numerous powerful countries are involved in the Syrian civil war, which has effectively made it a much larger and more complex proxy war.

"We need the public to say to members of Congress 'step up and do your job,'" Congresswoman Lee told Salon. "There are no checks and balances in place, our system of checks and balances has eroded."


By Charlie May

MORE FROM Charlie May