Have Months of Trump-Russia Hysteria Now Shut the Door on Avoiding War in Syria?
The Trump administration is slouching toward war with Syria, and Congress, as usual, is failing to assert its constitutional role.
In the last 24 hours, the Trump administration has sent a number of signals indicating it was preparing for a possible military response to Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons against its people, but, unsurprisingly, a formal request for a declaration of war or an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) has not made its way to Congress. The apparent lack of any substantive congressional action is an abrogation of Congress' constitutional role in war making—par for the course for a Congress that has for decades failed to meet its constitutional obligation, but as dangerous as ever.
Months of Russia-Trump hysteria, meanwhile, have made it far less likely that the U.S. and Russia could cooperate in the way they did in 2013, the last time the U.S. was this close to a military intervention in Syria aimed at the Assad government. Back then, the Assad government perpetrated an even larger chemical weapons attack, but an off-handed remark by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door for Russia to offer to facilitate a voluntary disarmament of chemical weapons by Syria.
Russia this week called on an investigation into the chemical weapons attack in Syria, and has also indicated that its support for Assad, crucial to the regime's survival, was "not unconditional." Russia has a lot of leverage to reel Assad in, and it would cost the U.S. far less in blood and treasure if Trump reached out to Putin to encourage him to reel Assad in, rather than building an international coalition to launch a war against the Assad government, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be doing. Yet neither Trump nor Putin have much incentive left to do this, thanks in large part to the Russia-Trump hysteria. Neither wants to be perceived as being in the pocket of the other.
A bipartisan effort launched earlier this year to get Congress to consider AUMFs for the war on ISIS and the war in Yemen has gone nowhere, despite Donald Trump indicating he would be open to seeking authorization from Congress for military action when he was a candidate The U.S. has been engaged in military actions across the Muslim world for the last 16 years, but the last time Congress authorized the use of military force was in 2002 against Iraq.
A 2001 AUMF against those responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks and their "associated forces" was used for the war in Afghanistan, and is now used to justify military actions in Yemen, Syria, Somalia, even Iraq, and elsewhere. Decades of under-use have weakened Congress' constitutional role in declaring war. Were the U.S. preparing the 2003 invasion of Iraq today, it's unlikely the executive branch would even need to seek a specific AUMF—today's interpretation of the 2001 AUMF would seem to cover wars like the one in Iraq. We may get to see that if the Trump administration continues down the path to war and the Congress continues to ignore the capture by the executive of its constitutional war powers.
Any potential intervention by the U.S. against the government in Syria requires authorization from Congress. President Obama's failure to seek authorization from Congress, and the Republican Congress' failure to do anything about it, does not change that requirement. But Congress has been setting a precarious precedent—the Obama administration did not even pretend the U.S. intervention in Libya was covered by the 2001 AUMF. Instead he pointed to resolutions by the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League. Proponents of intervention in Syria point out that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited by international law. After years (decades, even) insisting the U.S. should not be the policeman of the world, Trump is on the verge of entering the U.S. into yet another police action, after he spent the first few months of his presidency escalating the police actions he inherited. He was always the interventionist. Perhaps his unpopularity, particularly in Congress, could compel it to finally act.
Of note too, is the general disappointment in the Trump administration's turn toward war with Syria by some of Trump's most vocal supporters, those on Twitter.