Regardless of how good this response might make some feel, the terrible reality is nothing in Syria will change; Assad will go on brutalizing his people, maiming and killing with impunity those who oppose his rule. Short of full military intervention, the United States can do nothing to stop the slaughter this tyrant enjoys perpetrating. And, who knows, if we were to oust or kill Assad, would the violence and killing there stop? Remember Iraq, anyone? Assad will continue slaughtering Syrians and after enough time passes, he’ll use chemical weapons again. So, what do all these fireworks actually accomplish?
For Donald Trump, we don’t have to search for the answer. This opportunity to strike at Assad enables him to play the compassionate, decisive leader. Now he can flit repeatedly over twitter self-aggrandizing pronouncements that he hopes will dominate the immediate news cycle and drown all the talk James Comey’s new book is generating. Unfortunately for Trump, Comey’s book is the slightest of Trump’s problems. The two investigations, the one in Washington and the recent one in New York involving Michael Cohen, are weaving a net so finely wrought that not even the slippery Trump will be able to slither out of.
Beyond the drama of Trump’s presidency persists a problem even more troubling. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the standard rationale for deploying U.S. forces, drones and missiles has been that these military actions are conducted to protect our “freedom and way of life.” Of course, our freedom and way of life have never been threatened; our safety and peace of mind, on the other hand have been understandably frightened and potentially endangered by a terrorist detonating a bomb or spraying a crowd with an automatic weapon. But does the deployment of troops to 149 countries around the world really reduce the possibility of of terrorist attacks? It’s possible, though I doubt it. More importantly, has the question of deploying all these troops been seriously examined and debated according to the principles mandated in the Constitution and the War Powers Act?
The Constitution gives only Congress the authority to declare war and the War Powers Act requires the president to inform Congress within 48 hours of of committing military force and limits that use of force to 60 days. Except for George W. Bush, who sought and received congressional approval for both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, presidents before and after him have repeatedly acted without congressional authorization. Even President Obama violated the Constitution and War Powers Act when he claimed that he needed no congressional authorization for continuing the air campaign in Libya in 2011, for which he received a rebuke from the House of Representatives. Interestingly, when Obama did seek congressional approval for intervention in Syria, he was maligned by his foes and friends.
Trump has found cover (temporarily) for his troubles. But the clock ticks and the minutes and hours slide inexorably toward his undoing. Up to the final moment he falls, I expect he’ll wrap himself in a patriotic charade of more missiles or a military parade. As he does, maybe the Congress and the people of this country will wake up and finally realize the shameful way we have permitted too many presidents to enlarge their Constitutional authority over the use of the military. Congress could begin be asserting the authority with which the Constitution has empowered them, and find the courage to constrain what many of the fathers most feared: autocratic presidents.
And we the people could begin by pressuring congress to stop sending troops into conflicts irrelevant to the United States. To do that, we must be willing to challenge men such as General John Kelly and expose what Phil Klay aptly calls “patriotic correctness,” in his excellent opinion piece in The New York Times. When Americans are repeatedly told to see all U.S. military engagements as hallowed and all those who serve in the armed forces as heroes, questioning and challenging any U.S. military action becomes identified as a desecration of our “pious” patriotism and a blasphemy against the men and women who must be viewed as “sacred.” The men and women in the armed forces deserve not our adulation, but our support; and the best support we could give them is to keep out of the wars that endanger their lives, but pose no threat to the national security of America.
Link to Phil Klay essay: