Last night, President Donald Trump ordered cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase suspected of carrying out attacks with chemical weapons. This marks a departure from Trump’s previous determination to leave the Syrian regime untouched.
There are good arguments that can be made both for and against the strikes. One could say they’re appropriate because the use of weapons of mass destruction cannot be tolerated. On the other hand, the Syrian Civil War is a quagmire and getting involved in it seems like a bad idea.
Either way, the Trump administration did not seek congressional approval for those strikes, which makes them illegal. The Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress. In addition, the War Powers Resolution is very clear about the circumstances under which the U.S. can engage in hostile actions:
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.
Clearly, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime does not meet any of those requirements. Although the deployment of sarin violated a deal the U.S. and Russian governments made that was supposed to end Syria’s chemical weapons program, the agreement was never voted on by Congress. The statutory authority for this strike is weak at best.
Last night’s cruise missile strike was likely a one-time affair. It’s unlikely there will be any further strikes from the U.S. unless chemical weapons are used again. Realistically, there’s nothing Congress can do now. Besides, most members of Congress supported the strikes.
But if Trump wants to take additional action against the Syrian regime, he has to come to Congress and seek an authorization for use of military force or a declaration of war against Syria. That would force an open debate on the objectives and goals of the operation and compel President Trump to explain why the United States should be involved in yet another regime change operation in the Middle East.
A key purpose of government is to wage war. If the decision to do that cannot be considered, what important issues can? Only dictators—like, for example, Bashar al-Assad—send their citizens to war without proper debate.