As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wraps up his Moscow visit, and Trump tells the world which cake he was eating while launching a military strike on Syria, it is hard to suspect the attack was anything but Trump and his team trying to play to domestic approval ratings. Trump’s attack was an act of a weakened president looking for “a win”, with the bonus of threatening North Korea while China is at the dinner table.
Little rallies people more than militarism, with support coming from many in the media and Democrats including Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. But Trump’s quick trigger finger coupled with his inclination towards autocratic rule should concern all of us – and lead to the reinstatement of Congress’s principle role in authorizing the use of force.
Trump’s own deeds help clarify this was not done for the Syrian people. In the first week of his presidency, he signed an executive order banning all Syrian refugees to the US indefinitely. The brutal December 2016 siege of Aleppo did nothing to soften his stance towards Syrians upon taking office. Why now?
Not only does Trump lack humanitarian credentials, can citizens believe the humanitarian bone fides of Rex Tillerson, whose prior foreign policy experience is running Exxon Mobil for 20 years (a company accused of violating human rights across the globe)? Tillerson’s “rededication” to hold to account anyone who “commit[s] crimes against innocents” sounds more like an ominous warning to all governments.
But, the media took the bait immediately, with some even glowing over the beauty of the missiles. Many European governments were also quick to support Trump’s intervention. Trump’s attack helped boost media support, divert from Russian allegations, and tone down criticism of him, however brief.
Specifically, the bombing changed the narrative of Tillerson’s first visit as Secretary of State to Russia. Tillerson’s trip would likely have been clouded by his personal relationship with Russian leadership. But the strike ensured that Tillerson could not fail. If he left Moscow having mended the relationship, he would have appeared as a successful diplomat. If he departed claiming tensions are high, as he did, he will be seen as a bulwark against Russian interests. The bar has sunk so low that unless he had left Russia having started a hot conflict, he will be rewarded.
The lack of strategic purpose for the strike was clarified by the mixed messages from other members of the administration. Trump’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley accepted Assad one week and called for his removal the following. This week, the defense chiefs said regime change is not the goal. White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer used the occasion to spread more Holocaust denial. And after the strike, Trump said that the U.S. military will not go into Syria (although the U.S. military is in Syria fighting ISIS).
Some of the foreign policy experts in the make shift “situation room” included his son-in-law, his treasury secretary, and a former Breitbart publisher. It’s almost as if the photo was staged to give gravitas to an often mocked administration. Trump’s own assertion that he was eating cake with the Chinese president when he attacked a foreign country reveal a disturbingly cavalier attitude towards military decisions.
The seemingly self-serving nature of this attack is serious cause for concern. With Trump and the military ratcheting up tensions with North Korea, dropping mile-radius bombs in Afghanistan, and hinting at more action in Syria, citizens need to demand Congress reign in Trump’s unilateral tendencies when it comes to military action.
First, the White House must present the American public with its proposed long-term strategies for situations such as Syria, North Korea, ISIS, and global drone warfare. When asked what he was doing regarding North Korea, the current Commander-in-Chief said “You never know, do you? You never know”. That response should be unacceptable from the leader of a democracy and Congress should take notice.
This raises a second, more important point. Since we are not an autocracy, Congress must take back its role in pre-authorizing military action. Since 2001, the White House has used the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to justify raids and drone strikes worldwide. The 2001 AUMF addresses actors involved in the September 11 attacks, and the 2002 AUMF is specific to Iraq. Obama used both to justify strikes in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. And, Trump has only increased the use of drones. Furthermore, a strike on a Syrian military base without authorization is not covered by either AUMF and is viewed as unconstitutional by many.
Congress should rescind the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and draft new authorizations specific to geographic areas with specific time limits, requiring periodic review for reauthorization. The current Congressional recess is an opportunity to tell representatives to take back responsibility for approving military action. At the end of April, Congress will discuss the federal budget, including military spending. The budget discussions are a key time for concerned Congressional representatives to demand new legislation on the use of force.
Since 2001, American warfare has increasingly been conducted in the shadows of the US public. Trump’s ratings-inspired approach to warfare should motivate Congress to work together to reassert its constitutional duty to serve as a check to unrestrained military action.