In reaction to the missile strikes on Syria by the United States, Britain, and France the editors of the New York Times point out:
Under the United Nations Charter, there are two justifications for using force against another country without its consent: in self-defense and with the United Nations Security Council’s permission. The former does not apply in this case, and the latter would be impossible, given Russia’s veto power in the Council.
Under the Constitution, war powers are divided between Congress and the president. In the view of most legal scholars, America’s founders wanted Congress to decide when to go war, except when the country is under attack. Since World War II, presidents from both parties have pushed the boundaries of executive authority and carried out many military operations without congressional authorizations, as Mr. Trump did last year when he ordered 59 cruise missiles fired against Syrian targets after a sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
The War Powers Act in 1973 was supposed to allow Congress to reclaim some of its clout, but its record in circumscribing the president’s authority to use military forces in hostilities overseas is mixed. In recent years, executive branch lawyers have concluded that presidents may act unilaterally if they decide that a strike would be in the national interest and that it would fall short of an all-out war involving ground troops. Congress has largely acquiesced.
Two notable exceptions are the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force that were passed in 2001 and 2002 after the Sept. 11 attacks to cover American-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. The 2001 legislation was aimed at Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the 2002 legislation focused on the threat from the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Since then, President Barack Obama and now Mr. Trump have used those same authorizations at least 37 times to justify attacks on the Islamic State and other militant groups in 14 countries, including Yemen, the Philippines, Kenya, Eritrea and Niger, according to Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight. This has allowed the Republican-led Congress to avoid public debate — and any responsibility for sending American men and women into battle.
This interpretation of the law gives a free hand to the volatile and thoughtless Mr. Trump, which could prove even more dangerous if he were to decide to attack North Korea or Iran.
After a relentless push by Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, Bob Corker, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Tennessee Republican, is soon expected to propose a new authorization to deal with military operations against nonstate actors like ISIS.
But legislation should also set limits on a president’s ability to wage war against states like Syria. Without that, Congress would be once again abdicating its responsibility and ceding broad powers to an impulsive president with dubious judgment.
while the editors of the Wall Street Journal caution
The military strike by the U.S., France and the United Kingdom Friday night was a necessary response to what President Trump appropriately called “barbarism” in describing the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. The question going forward is whether this is another one-time attempt to punish Assad or if it presages a larger strategy to counter the attempt by the Assad-Russia-Iran axis to dominate the Middle East.
“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States,” President Trump said in a speech to the nation. He’s right, but a one-time strike won’t have the deterrent effect he wants. Assad, and above all his Iranian and Russian patrons, have to know that they will pay a price for supporting Assad’s behavior.
The extent of the punitive action wasn’t clear as we went to press, though it appeared to be more extensive than the strike a year ago that attacked a single Syrian airfield. Mr. Trump said Friday night that the attack last year eliminated 20% of Syria’s air force, but the rest was quickly up and running again.
Mr. Trump made a point Friday of asking Iran and Russia: “What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?“ A good question, but we hope the President doesn’t expect the Kremlin or Tehran to listen based on a one-time missile attack. They have too much invested in Assad to pull back unless they believe they will pay a larger price.
Administration briefers suggested the coalition is prepared for further strikes if need be, and if not Vladimir Putin can rest easy. The Assad axis is counting on the U.S. having limited staying power. The allies will have to be on guard for Mr. Putin and Iran to look for openings to strike back—from the Mediterranean to the Baltics. But it’s possible they will merely shout in protest and wait for the U.S. to lose interest. To truly deter barbarism and protect U.S. interests, Mr. Trump will need a larger strategy than one military strike.