Trump's Syria Attack: Praiseworthy or Bad Precedent?

It's hard to think of the last time America didn't have a wartime president.  From Franklin Roosevelt on, the U.S. military has been ordered to engage in hostilities at least at one point during each administration.

Donald Trump, the nationalist businessman from Queens who spoke with isolationist tones on the campaign trail, had the potential to break this cycle.  Trump violated Republican orthodoxy by denouncing the Iraq War as foolish, disparaging the legacy of NATO, and decrying how much blood and treasure we've lost to Middle East nation-building.

It's one year into his presidency, and things have changed.  Trump, working with Britain and France, ordered missile strikes against military and weapon research sites in Syria.  The country's leader, Bashar Assad, still in the throes of a civil war, allegedly deployed chemical weapons against rebels in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  The sarin-based attack killed 80, including civilians and children.

The strikes come nearly a year to the day after Trump ordered a unilateral strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a similar chemical attack.  The Syrian regime, leading another front against the concept of rhetorical consistency, decried the U.S.-led assault as "brutal, barbaric aggression."  Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, defending its ally Assad by denouncing the multilateral strike's "devastating impact on the whole system of international relations."

Dostoyevsky would be hard pressed to imagine the irony of Russia upholding international norms in the year 2018.

Washington loves a good war, and Trump received rare favorable coverage for his decisive intervention.  However, the president's more vocal antiwar supporters aren't happy.  Trump has seemingly gone back on his promise of America-first, and has embraced the country's leading role in world affairs.  In other words, Trump has, to quote neocon Irving Kristol, been mugged by reality.

This was evident in Trump's late-night address announcing the tactical measure.  "We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," he declared.  Should Assad deploy lethal chemical weapons again, he shouldn't be surprised by a more forceful riposte.

As Noah Rothman explains in Commentary, Trump really had no choice but to levy punishment on Syria's army.  The precedent was set with last year's attack on the Shayrat Airbase.  To demur would establish uncertain terms.  Likewise, the use of chemical weapons must remain prohibited, not just in letter, but in action.  "Reestablishing deterrence is in America's vital national interest," Rothman writes.  If we don't do it, we can be sure someone else will.

It took me a while to understand this dynamic.  As a former Ron Paul acolyte, I was enraptured by the romantic notion that the United States is just another country, an equal nation in a world of nation-states.  But the United States is not just another country.  We are, and I don't mean this pejoratively, an empire in the real sense of the world.  Our military presence dots the globe, and our values and regard for human life are imbued within international norms.  How we act on the world stage directs the behavior of other actors.

And yet there was something off with the way we went about striking Syria that isn't exclusive to this latest salvo.  President Trump failed to cite any domestic law to justify his assault against Syrian armed forces.  The congressional mandate to fight Islamic insurgents doesn't cover hostile actions against an officially recognized government. And as Daniel Larson points out, Trump also lacked the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council for the strike, which puts America on even shakier legal ground (if any ground at all).  "While the attack is being sold as the enforcement of a norm against chemical weapons use, it isn't possible to uphold an international norm while violating the most fundamental rule of international law," Larson laments.

I know it's popular for conservatives to pooh-pooh the U.N., but the post-World War II global system is anchored by laws set by the worldwide body.  There is a case to be made that since Russia would veto any Security Council vote on an attack against its ally, the block would be illegitimate, but that case wasn't made.  Without lawful, congressional, or U.N. approval, Trump took military action against another country.  The credibility gained in the strike was tainted by this omission.

This is unfortunate but all too common.  The United States hasn't formally declared war since Pearl Harbor.  Our political class is composed of craven opportunists unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of the office they hold.  So Congress outsources it to the executive branch, giving near complete deference to the president on waging war.

As for the U.N., we may soon rue our disregard for its legal strictures.  We benefit from the clear rules set down by the international organization.  When we act in violation, we invite others to do the same – the danger of which can't be stressed enough.  As Robert Bolt's Thomas More replied when asked if he'd let laws apply to the Devil, "Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

Knocking down laws in the name of expediency is exceedingly myopic.  President Trump should think about that the next time we're called to bombard Syria – or any other country – with missiles.  Sometimes a swift response is needed.  But going by the book has its benefits.  Unfortunately, that meek little truth is too oft lost in the heated temper of war.

Image: Michael Theis via Flickr.

It's hard to think of the last time America didn't have a wartime president.  From Franklin Roosevelt on, the U.S. military has been ordered to engage in hostilities at least at one point during each administration.

Donald Trump, the nationalist businessman from Queens who spoke with isolationist tones on the campaign trail, had the potential to break this cycle.  Trump violated Republican orthodoxy by denouncing the Iraq War as foolish, disparaging the legacy of NATO, and decrying how much blood and treasure we've lost to Middle East nation-building.

It's one year into his presidency, and things have changed.  Trump, working with Britain and France, ordered missile strikes against military and weapon research sites in Syria.  The country's leader, Bashar Assad, still in the throes of a civil war, allegedly deployed chemical weapons against rebels in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  The sarin-based attack killed 80, including civilians and children.

The strikes come nearly a year to the day after Trump ordered a unilateral strike on a Syrian airbase in response to a similar chemical attack.  The Syrian regime, leading another front against the concept of rhetorical consistency, decried the U.S.-led assault as "brutal, barbaric aggression."  Russia has called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, defending its ally Assad by denouncing the multilateral strike's "devastating impact on the whole system of international relations."

Dostoyevsky would be hard pressed to imagine the irony of Russia upholding international norms in the year 2018.

Washington loves a good war, and Trump received rare favorable coverage for his decisive intervention.  However, the president's more vocal antiwar supporters aren't happy.  Trump has seemingly gone back on his promise of America-first, and has embraced the country's leading role in world affairs.  In other words, Trump has, to quote neocon Irving Kristol, been mugged by reality.

This was evident in Trump's late-night address announcing the tactical measure.  "We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," he declared.  Should Assad deploy lethal chemical weapons again, he shouldn't be surprised by a more forceful riposte.

As Noah Rothman explains in Commentary, Trump really had no choice but to levy punishment on Syria's army.  The precedent was set with last year's attack on the Shayrat Airbase.  To demur would establish uncertain terms.  Likewise, the use of chemical weapons must remain prohibited, not just in letter, but in action.  "Reestablishing deterrence is in America's vital national interest," Rothman writes.  If we don't do it, we can be sure someone else will.

It took me a while to understand this dynamic.  As a former Ron Paul acolyte, I was enraptured by the romantic notion that the United States is just another country, an equal nation in a world of nation-states.  But the United States is not just another country.  We are, and I don't mean this pejoratively, an empire in the real sense of the world.  Our military presence dots the globe, and our values and regard for human life are imbued within international norms.  How we act on the world stage directs the behavior of other actors.

And yet there was something off with the way we went about striking Syria that isn't exclusive to this latest salvo.  President Trump failed to cite any domestic law to justify his assault against Syrian armed forces.  The congressional mandate to fight Islamic insurgents doesn't cover hostile actions against an officially recognized government. And as Daniel Larson points out, Trump also lacked the imprimatur of the U.N. Security Council for the strike, which puts America on even shakier legal ground (if any ground at all).  "While the attack is being sold as the enforcement of a norm against chemical weapons use, it isn't possible to uphold an international norm while violating the most fundamental rule of international law," Larson laments.

I know it's popular for conservatives to pooh-pooh the U.N., but the post-World War II global system is anchored by laws set by the worldwide body.  There is a case to be made that since Russia would veto any Security Council vote on an attack against its ally, the block would be illegitimate, but that case wasn't made.  Without lawful, congressional, or U.N. approval, Trump took military action against another country.  The credibility gained in the strike was tainted by this omission.

This is unfortunate but all too common.  The United States hasn't formally declared war since Pearl Harbor.  Our political class is composed of craven opportunists unwilling to shoulder the responsibility of the office they hold.  So Congress outsources it to the executive branch, giving near complete deference to the president on waging war.

As for the U.N., we may soon rue our disregard for its legal strictures.  We benefit from the clear rules set down by the international organization.  When we act in violation, we invite others to do the same – the danger of which can't be stressed enough.  As Robert Bolt's Thomas More replied when asked if he'd let laws apply to the Devil, "Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake."

Knocking down laws in the name of expediency is exceedingly myopic.  President Trump should think about that the next time we're called to bombard Syria – or any other country – with missiles.  Sometimes a swift response is needed.  But going by the book has its benefits.  Unfortunately, that meek little truth is too oft lost in the heated temper of war.

Image: Michael Theis via Flickr.