Trump’s Dereliction of Duty

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about trying to follow, understand, and analyze the presidency of Donald Trump is the overwhelming volume of problematic behaviors that stem from the chief executive. What’s the most disturbing thing? Is it the 836 false or misleading claims he’s uttered since taking office? His scorn for the rule of law evidenced by his attacks on the judiciary and those investigating the connections between the Trump campaign and Russia? The interviews that paint him as a barely coherent babbling idiot? (Seriously…I challenge anyone to read the recent interview with the New York Times and explain to me how this man is fit to run the country.) It’s like drinking from a fire hose…every day brings more outrageous acts that threaten to drown us in a sea of lies and moronicism.

Even scarier than the things we see and hear are the things that happen behind closed doors. And while we rarely have the curtain pulled back for us, occasionally someone reveals the goings-on inside the White House that should truly shock and terrify us.

For example, last week, Senator Lindsay Graham was at a PAC meeting, largely focused on the issue of health care reform, designed to attract new members and donors to the GOP. Graham acknowledged that there are some serious issues for Republicans today and that things between the party’s congresspeople and the president are rocky, but that he had recently developed a better personal and working relationship with Trump. In an attempt to illustrate this improved relationship, he began talking about what he likes about President Trump:

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Is Trump Ready for War with Iran?

On Wednesday, Hezbollah issued a deterrent threat to the United States, stating that the Lebanese-based militant group will attack US forces if the US crosses certain “red lines” in Syria. Several times over the last few months, the US has launched air strikes against pro-Assad forces, including elements of Hezbollah, that the US has accused of violating the “de-confliction zones” set up by the US and Russia. Despite both the US and Iran being opposed to ISIS–and to some degree cooperating against the Islamic State in Iraq–in Syria, the two states goals are at loggerheads, with the US fighting primarily against ISIS while Iran strives to support the beleaguered regime.

The problem lies in the de-confliction zone, which Iran seems to seeking to control in order to develop a corridor through Syria to Lebanon, through which it could supply Hezbollah with weapons. The US, prodded to some degree by Israel and its Sunni allies, all of whom fear the rise of Hezbollah and the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, has been punishing violations of the de-confliction zone as a way to push back against Iran and its proxy.

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Deterrence Calculations in North Korea

As North Korea prepares for what many people believe will be its sixth nuclear test, and in the aftermath of recent ballistic missile tests, tensions between the US and North Korea are rising. US military officials have stated that the US is “assessing military options” while North Korea, in its typically hyperbolic manner, has threatened “nuclear thunderbolts” and to destroy US military bases in South Korea as well as the presidential palace in Seoul if the US uses force. President Trump has sent the carrier battle group led by the USS Carl Vinson to the region and warned that the US will act if China can’t or won’t use its leverage to restrain North Korea, while China in turn is urging both countries to walk back their rhetoric or risk seeing the situation spin out of control.

Both sides are attempting to deter the other. The US seeks to deter North Korea from testing a nuclear device and ballistic missiles; North Korea seeks to deter the US from using force to destroy its weapons capabilities or as punishment. Can either side succeed in deterring the other? Will North Korea conduct its test? Is the use of force by one side or the other likely?

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On the Timing, Legality, Strategy, and Effect of the Strike on Syria

Yesterday, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, striking an air base that President Trump alleged played a direct role in the gruesome nerve gas attack of Tuesday. The attack prompted the usual questions: Why now? Is it legal? What effect will the strike have on Syria? On the US’s role in the Syrian civil war?

Why now? If we take President Trump at his word, the horrific nature of the effects of nerve gas, likely coupled with the video evidence of children gasping for their last breaths, altered his assessment of the wisdom of leaving the Assad regime in place or allowing it to conduct chemical weapons attacks unpunished. That the strike occurred two days after the chemical attack and (for now) seems to be limited to a single air base claimed to be involved in some way (whether that means there is a chemical weapons facility there or simply that the planes that dropped the chemical agents launched from there is as of yet unknown. The New York Times has a nice feature on the targets) supports the logic that this represents a specific response to a specific event.

Past presidents have spoken of seeing all the horrors and miseries of the world and realizing that they actually had the power and tools to do something about them (not necessarily to solve them, however). Seeing starving Somali children on (what was then the relatively new) CNN was, in most accounts, motivated President George H. W. Bush to intervene in Somalia. Watching the video of the attack is undeniably horrifying and it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that Trump, who almost certainly has never seen or even thought about such things before, was shocked to his core and felt he had to act.

But, could the attack be a diversion? It’s no secret that things haven’t been going well for the Trump administration lately, and it’s also no secret that military actions tend to produce an immediate upsurge of public support–the so-called “rally-around-the-flag effect”–for the president. It’s not impossible, but I see it as unlikely. Presidents often face bad timing when they seek to use military force. Recall President Clinton’s air strikes against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox on the eve of his impeachment trial. It’s hard to imagine the Joint Chiefs, the theater commanders, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Adviser all going along with a military strike that has no perceived value or is motivated solely by domestic political concerns. That’s not to say that the use of force won’t benefit Trump in the court of public opinion; I’m just skeptical that it’s the primary motivation.

Was it legal? Does the president of the United States have the right to attack another sovereign state with which the US is not at war and that does not pose an immediate, direct threat to the US or US citizens? Article I, Sec. 8 gives Congress the power “to declare war” but it does not declare what that power encompasses? Put simply, are all uses of force “war” in a legal sense that require congressional authorization? If not, can the president use force whenever and wherever he sees fit? (NOTE: as I’m not really a scholar of international law, I’ll leave the question of whether the attack was legal under IL to others. If you’re interested, you can find good analyses here (in favor) and here, here and here (against).

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