Apr 07 2017
At 7:36 p.m. ET on Thursday night, the USS Porter and USS Ross naval destroyers launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air Base in Syria. Fifty-eight of the missiles reached their intended target, destroying approximately 20 aircraft that United States intelligence sources believe were involved in a Sarin gas attack perpetrated by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people earlier this week.
In a memo sent to U.S. government agencies Thursday night, but not to Congress, the White House invoked Article 2 of the Constitution, asserting that President Trump has the inherent power to defend the national interest.
“No authorization from Congress is necessary,” the memo reads. “The U.S. strikes were a justified use of force because of several factors, including promoting regional stability, discouraging the use of chemical weapons, and protecting a civilian population from humanitarian atrocities.”
Article 2 of the Constitution is understood to grant the president certain emergency powers to use military force if the country has been attacked or faces imminent attack.
In the past, presidents have cited this power to justify isolated military actions, like President Reagan did when he dropped 60 tons of bombs on Libya after then-President Muammar Gaddafi was linked to a terrorist attack on U.S. soldiers in Germany.
But while the president can order a discrete strike, there is a short shot clock on further action before a president must come to Congress and make his case to the American people. Article 1 of the Constitution clearly grants the power to declare war to Congress, not the president.
This is by design. While the Framers knew a unitary Executive Branch was needed to carry out a war, they also understood that the Legislative Branch, which is closer to the people, was needed to make military action legitimate and accountable.
For now, the Trump administration is signaling that Thursday’s strike falls more into the isolated category of military action. An unnamed defense official told Reuters the attack was a “one-off” with no current plans for escalation. "I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday. “There has been no change in that status."
If this assessment holds, if Thursday’s military action is a one-time event, then what’s done is done. But if further action is contemplated, even future “one-offs,” President Trump must come to Congress and make the case to the American people.
There are simply too many questions that have not been answered. Assad has not attacked the United States nor is he an immediate threat to us. Continuing to weaken Assad's forces carries significant risks, including increasing the power vacuum that terrorist organizations have previously taken advantage of, involving the United States in another long-term regime change, and increasing the potential for confrontation with Russian forces and Iranian proxies operating in Syria.
If we are going to intervene further in Syria, we've got to have a clear plan in mind. We need to know if the plan is to topple Assad. If the plan is to topple Assad, we need to know what a post-Assad Syria would look like and how we are going to get there. But most importantly, we need to know how the plan is going to make the American people safer.
I trust that if the president does choose to act further, he will not only have the answers to these questions, but he will also not hesitate to share them with Congress and ask for the people’s consent for military action.