By Daniel DePetris
Approximately 72 hours after the world woke up to another chemical weapons attack on civilians perpetrated by Assad regime warplanes, President Donald Trump responded with a “go” order to the U.S. military. Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles from the USS Porter and the USS Ross based in the Mediterranean Sea were launched in the direction of the very airfield where the chemical weapons strike in Idlib province originated. After the barrage was over, President Trump gave a quick statement from his Florida retreat, stating the military action that he ordered was in response to an attack that was “an affront to humanity” and an insult to everyone who values international law.
There was one giant actor missing in this entire story, however: The United States Congress.
If you were looking for the legislative branch—the actual branch of government that possesses the power to declare war under our constitutional system of government—to fulfill its role as an active participant, you might as well stop reading now.
Questions about whether Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian military airfield was constitutional will be debated in the coming days and weeks (one hopes). Indeed, if last night's round of airstrikes in Syria weren’t merely symbolic but instead a sign of things to come, lawmakers will have no choice but to reschedule their Easter vacations and stay in Washington to debate and vote on yet another military campaign in the Middle East.
In an ideal world where the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution are laws of the land, President Trump would have done the necessary groundwork with the Congress and executed a legislative strategy to keep America’s representatives informed about what he planned to do—before the first Tomahawk was fired into Syrian airspace.
The War Powers Act is quite clear: "The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” The U.S. Constitution is even clearer: "The Congress shall have the power...To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.”
As horrific as the Assad regime’s chemical attack on civilians was, it simply does not rise to the criteria outlined under war resolution statute. And as far as Congress declaring war? Well, they haven’t mustered the courage to vote on an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) since 2002.
What we saw instead last night was members of Congress opting to send weighty press releases stating their policy preferences instead of doing their jobs and voting on whether to authorize military actions. It appears that fourteen years of carping from the peanut gallery has seeped into the twittersphere. The default response for most lawmakers, encapsulated last night, is rally around the flag and demand answers later.
Ordering a targeted military attack is one thing, but ordering it without even consulting members of Congress in the process is something else entirely.
Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a lawmaker who should be consulted, at the very least, by the president or his designees, was apparently out of the loop. According to Cardin’s statement, the White House informed him of the decision once the U.S. military was the Tomahawks were already in the air—not exactly a boon for executive-legislative relations, nor the kind of consultation that the Founders of our Republic had in mind when they wrote the country’s most important document.
The fact that Sen. Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was informed prior to the missile launch makes the situation to keep Cardin in the dark more concerning because it suggests the administration views Republicans on Capitol Hill as partners and Democrats as outcasts.
Judging from the Twitter feeds of many lawmakers in the hours after the airstrike, they were informed about the president’s decision like every other American—through media reports. Acts of war should never be a partisan exercise.
Rightly or wrongly, President Trump made his decision as the Commander-in-Chief. The problem is that he implemented that decision without legal authority and before explaining fully to the American people—or even their elected representatives—what the administration’s overall objectives in Syria are; whether the strike in Syria last night was a one-time event; or whether Americans should expect a longer and more intensive campaign intended to overthrow the Syrian government.
Congress was sidelined last night. And many members are likely relieved that they were; it’s the politically easy way out of a very hard issue that does, after all, have substantial political risk attached to it. But declaring war or authorizing military force isn’t supposed to be easy. As former Senator and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel once said, if you want easy, retire from Congress and “go shine shoes” instead.
Now that the U.S. Armed Forces have engaged the Assad regime for the first time since Syria’s civil war erupted more than six years ago, Congress must step up to the plate and make it abundantly clear to the Trump administration that the Constitution isn’t some optional document where the president can pick and choose which articles to follow and which to ignore. Hold hearings. Compel testimony from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis about what the Syria policy is. And if the strikes continue, stop dithering and schedule a public debate on what could very well be the beginning of an unpredictable intrusion into the Middle East’s bloodiest civil war in decades. Their spring vacations can wait.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow with Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on April 7, 2017. Read more HERE.