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).