Launching missiles against another country is nothing short of an act of war. The Constitution gives Congress the sole authority to declare war, not the president.
When he ordered a “surgical” bombing strike against Syria in retaliation for Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people, Donald Trump violated the US Constitution. Those members of Congress who support both the Constitution and the strike should demand a vote to retroactively approve Trump’s actions. Failing to do so shirks the duty enshrined in the congressional oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution.
Launching missiles against another country is nothing short of an act of war. The Constitution gives Congress the sole authority to declare war, not the president. In response to the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Act to delineate when the president could initiate military action prior to congressional approval. That act authorizes the president to strike in response to “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States.”
It appears certain that somebody used chemical weapons against innocent civilians in the Douma suburb of Damascus. The government of France has concluded that the attack was instigated by Assad because “there is no plausible other scenario.” Whether or not this is correct, the chemical weapons use on innocent Syrian civilians cannot possibly be construed as an attack against the United States.
Any chemical weapons use is a war crime and a violation of the Geneva Convention that should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court or a special Syrian war crimes tribunal. An international response could include sanctions, diplomacy or even military strikes that could involve US forces. The US backed a United Nations resolution to create an independent investigation into the chemical weapons attack, which Russia blocked. Russia was wrong to do so, but that still does not authorize the US president to launch a military strike without congressional approval.
Congress did pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) after the September 11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, and Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump have used that authorization to pursue Islamic State terrorists in both Iraq and Syria. Some have argued that this AUMF should be updated to specifically authorize action against ISIS, but nobody is arguing that attacking the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad is the same thing as attacking ISIS or any terrorist group. In fact, Assad is also fighting ISIS within his own country.
President Obama faced a similar situation after a chemical weapons attack in Syria in 2013. He sought congressional approval to strike Syria in retaliation and to degrade its possibility to use such weapons in the future. Donald Trump himself tweeted that Obama needed approval from Congress. By his own standards, Donald Trump violated the US Constitution when he acted without approval.
Breaching the Constitution, especially regarding a serious matter such as war, is an impeachable offense. That means that Congress could impeach the president for this unauthorized use of force, but it doesn’t mean that it must. There is a reasonable argument that if Congress does indeed support Trump’s actions, it can tacitly approve his military strike simply by failing to impeach him over it. Many members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, did voice support for striking Syria in response to chemical weapons use — both under Obama and Trump — so why bother making a fuss over a process issue?
There are two problems with Congress choosing tacit approval over holding an affirmative vote to approve or reject Trump’s strike. First, allowing any president to flout the Constitution erodes the separation of powers and normalizes authoritarian behavior. What will stop Trump, or any future president, from additional unauthorized strikes against countries such as North Korea or Iran? Secondly, tactic approval allows members of Congress to avoid taking a roll-call vote and facing accountability for their actions with the voters. Many voters on both the left and right strongly oppose further US military involvement in Syria, while others feel that we had no choice but to act. It’s a difficult situation and Congress may be happy to let the White House take the heat on this issue. That is precisely what is wrong with it.
Members of Congress who legitimately agree that the US needed to attack Syria to punish its alleged use of chemical weapons should introduce a resolution that retroactively authorizes it. Should that resolution fail, Congress could then decide whether or not to censure or impeach the president for unauthorized use of military force. Should the resolution pass, it would send a message to future presidents that they will be held accountable for whatever actions they take. It would also let voters consider the matter when they evaluate how their member of Congress stood on the issue.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.