Donald Trump

Trump Attacks Syria Without Congressional Authorization (or Clearly Defined Goals)

Basically, it's just like every other military engagement since 9/11.



President Donald Trump ordered military strikes against Syria on Friday night (early Saturday morning in Syria), which he framed as a response to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians and rebel fighters last week.

The attack commences without two fundamental elements of any hostile engagement against another nation: authorization from Congress, and a clear understanding of the mission's aims. These are not mere technicalities, regardless of how often they have been brushed aside by various chief executives in the name of expediency.

Just hours ago, 87 members of Congress sent a letter to the White House demanding that Trump not take military action without congressional authorization. Trump apparently thumbed his nose at the request. Your move, Congress.

It's quite likely that Trump will claim the attack on Syria was covered under the same Authorization for the Use of Military Force that has been used to justify almost every American intervention in the Middle East (the Iraq War was authorized separately) since it was passed shortly after the 9/11 attacks. That was more than 200 months ago, for anyone who is keeping count.

Just this week, outgoing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) downplayed the importance of forcing Trump to get congressional approval for a strike on Syria. "Well, he has the authority under the existing AUMF," Ryan said Thursday.

In other words, a congressional mandate for the U.S. military to go after the 9/11 plotters is now being used to target Assad.

The second important question that would have been important to ask before the missiles start flying and the bombs start exploding—as they apparently already have—is "how will we know we have achieved our goals?"

On this front, too, Trump failed to make a compelling case. The closest that Trump came to defining a goal for the attack was a threat "to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents." That's better than nothing, but it's not very clear—and it's not at all clear what it would take to drive the Syrian dictator from power, nor what Iran and Russia would be willing to do to keep him there. If Trump is serious about defining victory in that way, he may have just committed the United States to a long, bloody path.

This is all the more infuriating because Trump seems to understand the limits of American military power, and certainly has been better at articulating those limitations than either of his immediate predecessors. Indeed, he even acknowledged those limitations on Friday night.

"We cannot purge the world of evil or act everywhere there is tyranny," Trump said. "America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria. We look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home."

If only we could look forward to the day when they would be kept at home, until such time as Congress deems appropriate to deploy them.

(This post has been updated.)