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The New American Way of War

The president attacks Syria without Congress’s approval

Tomahawk missile
A Syrian-bound Tomahawk missile is launched from the destroyer USS Laboon in the Red Sea on April 14. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Kallysta Castillo)

Historically, war has made orphans. Increasingly for the United States, war-making is becoming an orphan, too.

On behalf of the nation, President Trump unilaterally declared war on Syria on April 13. He pledged to “sustain this response” with additional attacks on the government of dictator Bashar Assad if he uses chemical weapons again. Trump went out of his way to praise Britain and France for joining in the strike, which only served to highlight who was missing from the decision to go to war: the American people, and/or their elected representatives in Congress.

An apathetic American public and a spineless Congress have joined in a de facto alliance that increasingly allows U.S. presidents to go to war when and where they want. The elastic authorizations for the use of military force that Congress passed in the wake of 9/11 have been stretched by the last three administrations from continent to continent to justify military strikes in at least eight nations.

“President Trump's threats of sustained further operations against Syria are just seen by most Americans as part of this permanent background noise of conflict,” says David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “These signals of greater action have provoked almost no interest from the citizenry, and frankly not much more from Congress.”

Trump attacked Syria because of its alleged use of chemical weapons, not for its links to terrorists that might strike Americans at home. But it is part of the same package: the U.S. is now a nation waging war on auto-pilot, which—given the tenor of the times—means the U.S. will be engaged in conflict indefinitely, spending hundreds of billions of dollars it doesn’t have, without reflection or deliberation.

Tellingly, it seems the only brake on Trump’s lightning bolt came from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who reportedly wanted Congress to approve the attack beforehand. But Trump overruled the retired Marine general, according to the New York Times, because the president “wanted a rapid and dramatic response.”

An apathetic American public and a spineless Congress have joined in a de facto alliance that increasingly allows U.S. presidents to go to war when and where they want.

Maybe so, but the response wasn’t particularly rapid (it happened a week after the chemical-weapons barrage that triggered it), nor was it particularly dramatic (105 missiles hit three chemical-weapons sites, roughly double a 2017 barrage Trump ordered). Both the White House and Mattis denied he’d pushed for pre-strike congressional approval.

While Mattis called the attack a “one-time shot,” another retired four-star Marine echoed his call for a better-late-than-never congressional OK. “If there is the potential for the attacks to be repeated or sustained, then the president should go to Congress for approval,” Anthony Zinni says. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. Like Mattis, Zinni once was chief of U.S. Central Command, which includes Syria.

Let’s acknowledge up front that Syria is a mess, made more so by the shadows of Assad’s allies Iran and Russia, whose influence in the region is growing. A horrible civil war has raged across the country for seven years, with hundreds of rebel groups fighting Assad’s grip on power and among themselves. The world has sat on its hands as at least 400,000 civilians have died. But several chemical-weapons attacks, allegedly launched by Assad’s forces, have killed about 1,000, or 0.25 percent of the total. The latest such incident, just outside the capital of Damascus April 7, killed at least 42 and triggered Trump’s attack.

But the strike was launched without a U.S. strategy to guide it to its target. That too is what happens when a president is free to fire without having to convince the rest of us that what he wants to do is worth risking young American lives.

And it’s not only pin-striped diplomats and foreign-policy weenies who sense the vacuum. One can learn a lot about the thinking inside the U.S. military by checking out Duffel Blog, an independent website widely read inside the Pentagon for its humorous take on the truth. Not surprisingly, it found the Syria strike a satire-rich target. “At least one senator was reportedly seen frantically running in the other direction after he noticed Mattis walking toward him last Wednesday carrying briefing papers on Syria and chemical weapons,” it reported. “`Please someone open the door! Anyone! Please! Secretary Mattis is going to try to get me to do my constitutional duty overseeing the Defense Department,’ the unnamed senator reportedly said, banging on doors during a visit to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. `Please! Help me!’” It makes you laugh through your tears.

There were markedly different U.S. reactions to the strike, which only highlights the need for debate here at home. Many Trump loyalists view it as a betrayal, following in the sad footsteps of George Bush and Barack Obama. “Congratulations to the Trump administration for adopting the same failed foreign policy and ignoring of the constitution as the last two administrations,” Doug Stafford, a strategist for Sen. Rand Paul’s political action committee, tweeted.

Trump tweets

Yet most ignored the elephant in the room. National-security heavyweights (Susan Rice, President Obama’s national-security adviser, Jim Stavridis, retired Navy admiral and NATO commander, and Jim Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq), assessed the strike’s impact without mentioning its unilateral U.S. nature. A new missile the Air Force reportedly lobbed at Syria seemed to garner more attention than Congress being MIA as Trump single-handedly launched a new war and pulled America in along with him, like it or not (not so; the Pentagon’s initial claim about the use of the new weapon proved not to be true). All this is likely to amount to nothing, of course, unless a future missile, old or new, goes astray and kills a bunch of Iranian and Russian enablers inside Syria.

To highlight their preferred hands-off approach, senators proposed a retooled perpetual authorization for the use of military force their first day back at work following the Syrian attack. “A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate [April 16] would give the president sweeping authority to wage endless war anywhere in the world with limited congressional intervention,” The American Conservative reported. “In short, it’s a rubber stamp for the global war on terror.”

“Terror,” of course, has become the cudgel to beat the U.S. public into a cowering pile of protoplasm. Americans seem unable to put the terror threat in perspective, and then act accordingly. “If the past 17 years have taught us anything, it’s that far from being an existential menace, in most cases terrorism is a manageable threat,” argue Gene Healy and John Glaser of the Cato Institute in the New York Times. “Since Sept. 11, an American’s chance of being killed in the United States by a terrorist is about one in 40 million.”

Beyond the odds is history, which hints that the Syrian strike was illegal. The Supreme Court declared in 1862 that a president “has no power to initiate or declare a war.” But that notion has slowly eroded since World War II, and all but collapsed since 9/11. “By anyone’s definition, a nation that launches war on the word of one man is not, in any real sense, a republic any more,” Garrett Epps, a constitutional legal scholar at the University of Baltimore, wrote for The Atlantic. “In the long run, allowing the president to become an autocrat with sole control of war and peace is likely to prove fatal to the republic.”

Back at the Pentagon, Mattis didn’t boast that he had succeeded in scaling back the strike that Trump originally wanted to launch. He opted instead to stress the importance of Britain and France joining the attack. “Wherever we operate, we do so with complete trust in each other, the professionalism, but more than that, the belief that one another will be there when the chips are down,” Mattis said.

Too bad the commander-in-chief doesn’t feel that way about the citizens who elected him.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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