The densely populated neighborhoods of this Syrian town slept peacefully as night wore on, until residents were jolted awake in the early morning by a series of explosions. Shortly after the dust had settled, a blanket of noxious gas descended upon the town, sending dozens of residents into convulsions as nerve gas seeped into their bloodstreams, killing hundreds slowly and painfully.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. I’m referring to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013 that killed 1,500 civilians, including 426 children. In the ensuing hours, President Obama nearly authorized a military strike on Syria to enforce his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. However, he decided to first seek Congressional approval for this use of force. Facing a war-weary public and hesitant Congress, the vote never took place, and he decided against attacking Assad.
Everyone knows Trump is impulsive and mercurial, but these last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind. That’s because one of Trump’s signature foreign policy stances – one of his only coherent foreign policy stances – was his opposition to involvement in Syria. In Aug. 2013, Trump tweeted that “we should stay the hell out of Syria.” Later, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump criticized Clinton for her “flailing Syria policy,” and advocated for narrowly targeting ISIS while staying out of the broader war. However, Trump completely reversed his stance on April 6, bombing the Al-Shayrat airfield two days after Assad’s use of chemical weapons against rebels in Idlib Province.
Before denigrating Trump, it’s important to note that I support the strikes in Syria. While it’s hard to fully assess their merit without knowledge of his broader strategy, Trump’s strike shows that the use of force is on the table. As a result, American diplomats will have a stronger negotiating position during any future peace talks over a political solution in Syria. In addition, Assad’s use of chemical weapons is deplorable. A military strike is the only reliable deterrent against their further use, and will help uphold the international norm against the use of these devastating weapons.
That being said, Trump’s initiation of these strikes is worrisome for a multitude of reasons. First of all, it proves his deep impulsivity. Trump could not have consulted his entire foreign policy staff, because large swaths of positions at the State Department and other relevant agencies are still vacant. Pictures from the room where he deliberated over the strike show him with Jared Kushner, his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and other members of his economic team. It’s not the sort of group you’d expect to see discussing foreign policy. Furthermore, Trump seems to have reversed his position based on an emotional response to pictures of dying children. While it’s comforting to see that Trump has regard for human beings other than himself, why did he oppose Obama’s use of force in 2013 when similar “beautiful babies” were dying? Because Trump didn’t see similar images on cable news in 2013, he didn’t have the emotional response he did on April 6, and thus didn’t support military action. Trump is driven by emotion, not rational thought, and that should worry all of us.
Trump’s strikes in Syria were also unconstitutional. The Constitution gives Congress the power to “declare war.” However, the original wording of the Constitution gave Congress the power to “make war,” leaving nothing to the President. The convention amended this word choice to allow the President to “repel sudden attacks,” according to James Madison. Constitutional scholars have largely been skeptical of Obama’s legal justification for airstrikes against ISIS based on the 2001 authorization for the use of force after 9/11, but at least Obama had some legal justification. Trump lacks even the tenuous legal justification of the Obama administration. Furthermore, by acting so quickly, he didn’t give his Office of Legal Counsel enough time to consider the legality of his actions. Even if Trump is acting legally (somehow), his disdain for even knowing the answer shows a deep disregard for the rule of law and the Constitution.
While Trump’s airstrikes put the U.S. in a better negotiating position and likely deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons, they show Trump’s recklessness, irrationality and shameful disregard for legality. Trump must seek Congressional approval for further military action in Syria, and should lay out a comprehensive strategy for the public to scrutinize.
Sam Carlen ’20 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from St. Paul, Minn. His major is undecided.