Last night President Trump launched military strikes against Syria, as punishment for the Assad regime's apparent use of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war. The actions were supplemented by leaders of France and Britain, who said the attacks are a protest against the use of chemical weapons, not a call for regime change. Trump, who only weeks ago was calling for the pulling of all U.S. troops from the region, said that the United States will "sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents."
Whatever Trump's argument for intervention, it seems to be an unconstitutional act on its face. The president has broad powers to defend the country as commander in chief but we are neither technically at war nor were we facing an imminent threat, the two conditions that would allow him to act unilaterally without prior authorization. In bombing first and asking permission later, of course, the president is merely following in the footsteps of many, if not all, of his recent predecessors.
As is common in this administration, key officials are at publicly at odds with one another. Defense Secretary James Mattis has announced the missiles and bombs were a "one-time shot" while Trump avers this is part of a sustained action until the right outcome (not exactly clear what that means) is reached.
Trump launched a similar campaign against Syria almost exactly a year ago. Its effects were minimal in terms of casualties and positive outcomes. Given increased tensions now between Russia and the United States over the investigation into Kremlin-led attempts to influence the 2016 election, increasingly serious charges that Trump associates and adminstration members have been playing fast and loose with all sorts of ethics problems, the raid on the offices of Trump's personal lawyer, and more, this bombing run uncomfortably calls to mind the moment when an embattled Bill Clinton deflected attention from domestic quandries by bombing foreign countries. In 1998, he chose the day that Monica Lewinsky testified before a grand jury to conduct bombing runs on terrorist sites in Afghanistan and Sudan. He bombed Iraq the day his impeachment trial started, too, delaying its opening. As a country, we don't want to even acknowledge the possibility that foreign policy can be dictated by the pettiest of domestic difficulties, but there it is.
Whatever is precisely behind Trump's specific timing—the military action came shortly after the White House made a historic pledge to ending the war on pot through administrative and legislative fixes, signed a controversial pardon of Bush-era official Scooter Libby, and started tweeting about James Comey's explosive book about being fired by Trump—he continues to scramble existing categories like no other recent politicians.
For instance, he pulls the ultra-hawkish and former Fox News regular John Bolton into his cabinet, hits Syria in fast fashion, and then gets lambasted on Fox News diehard fans Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Read:
Carlson noted that shortly before the attack, President Donald Trump said he would like to see an end to American involvement in Syria.
"How would [gassing civilians] benefit Assad?" Carlson asked, cautioning people not to rush to judgment.
He proceeded to call out some of the critics, who called him "insane" and accused him of disseminating Russian propaganda. Another journalist tweeted that he should "STFU."
Carlson said "shutting the F up" is what those in favor of military action want, arguing they do not seem interested in debate.
Most theatrically, Trump has lost the unconditional positive regard of Alex Jones of InfoWars, who accuses the president of "crapping all over" his supporters by attacking Syria. Jones is as convincingly broken up as the "crisis actors" he insists populate most mass shooting scenes. Jeb Bush was right when he called Trump "the chaos candidate." The billionaire really knows how to scramble more than eggs.
Alex Jones on Trump launching strikes in Syria… pic.twitter.com/FkPt3xnok4
— Andrew Peng (@TheAPJournalist) April 14, 2018
In the other direction, a wide variety of #NeverTrump conservatives and liberal interventionists—including John McCain and Elizabeth Warren—are praising the attacks. Hillary Clinton was calling for them a week ago and there are apologists for unbridled state power such as former Obama State Department official Anne Marie Slaughter, who writes:
I believe that the US, UK, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.
— Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) April 14, 2018
It's widely understood across the political spectrum that nothing makes a president—no matter how divisive and polarizing—more "presidential" than taking military action, especially when we're talking about bombs and missiles that hit targets thousands of miles away. That's a sad reality and it's one that libertarians have pushed back again and again, along with the larger concept of an "imperial presidency" in which a powerful individual concentrates power in himself rather than making sure it resides, decentralized, through the organs of government and in the individual choices made by all of us. In the 21st century alone, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the financial crisis, and a chronic inability in Congress to find its spine and do its basic duties, the presidency has arrogated more and more power, especially in foreign policy. It's not a surprise, then, that our foreign policy has lurched from one disaster to another. It reflects the flawed impulses of commanders in chief who are not up to running the world. No one is.
Shortly after Trump was elected, there was a brief "oh, shit!" moment among liberals who realized that all the administrative power Barack Obama had amassed was now in the hands of a guy no one ever expected to be president. (Republicans suffered the same terror when Bush left office in 2009). The solution to this is not to vote out the other guy and get your guy in. It's to follow the Constitution, spread the power among the branches of government, and reduce the number of things the government can do just because it wants to.
And now that Trump has lost Alex Jones and gained Elizabeth Warren, we may finally be on the cusp of pulling the current dysfunctional system down. That's about the only way this bombing can be worth anything.