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Analysis: Trump’s Syria Strikes Highlight Congress’ War Powers Impotence

‘I would be absolutely astonished if Congress did a thing,’ expert says

President Donald Trump, flanked by new national security advisor John Bolton, on April 9 at the White House. Four days later, he ordered new cruise missile strikes in Syria. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump, flanked by new national security advisor John Bolton, on April 9 at the White House. Four days later, he ordered new cruise missile strikes in Syria. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Even as President Donald Trump has in recent weeks built a more hawkish national security team and again fired missiles at Syrian targets, Congress is not likely to take back the war-making powers it has steadily given up.

The days leading up to Friday night’s strikes by U.S., French and British forces on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons infrastructure offered a telling illustration of how this Congress, like most since World War II, has struggled to play its constitutional role in America’s armed conflicts.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker intended to unveil on Thursday a measure that would update the military force authorization measure that was passed three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When Thursday rolled around, the Tennessee Republican said he would delay releasing the measure. Then he said he planned to share it with members Friday.

That night, as U.S. warships launched missiles at a sovereign country in an operation unrelated to the 9/11 assault or the group that carried it out, no members signaled they had seen such a document. And so it has gone with the legislative branch’s war-making role for decades.

Watch: Lawmakers Press Pompeo On Syria Response Without Congressional Approval

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Saying uncle

By repeatedly not requiring presidents to obtain congressional authorization before relatively small-scale military strikes, lawmakers have given Trump and future presidents the go-ahead to take actions like Friday night’s. With the exception of the 2003 Iraq war, Congress in recent years has largely allowed presidents in both parties free rein in using military force.

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Some of the most direct criticism following the strikes came from Sen. Tim Kaine, who serves on both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

“President Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government without Congress’s approval is illegal and — absent a broader strategy — it’s reckless,” the Virginia Democrat said in a statement Friday. “Last week, President Trump was adamant that the U.S. was leaving Syria imminently. This week, he is opening a new military front. Assad must face consequences for his war crimes, but Presidents cannot initiate military action when there isn’t an imminent threat to American lives.”

Despite such congressional criticism, the president is prepared to act again in Syria, if needed. A senior administration official who briefed reporters Saturday said that “if this act does not succeed, we will act again.” Success will be measured based on whether Assad uses chemical weapons again, Trump and his national security aides say.

Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama, carried out a sweeping armed drone and special operations campaign against groups including al-Qaida and the Islamic State in a number of countries where such organizations did not operate in 2001.

Obama contended that the Constitution — along with the 2001 AUMF — vests in the office of the presidency enough war powers to carry out some isolated military operations without lawmakers’ approval.

Trump and his national security team concluded the same, with aides last week saying they were confident he had all the legal authority necessary to launch the second round of missile strikes on Syria since he took office. The president is the third post-9/11 commander in chief to use that 2001 measure like a legal rubber band, stretching it in various ways to cover all kinds of military operations in all kinds of places.

Sitting it out

But when Congress gets back to work this week — and even with no major legislation on the docket — don’t expect lawmakers to demand a new force authorization measure from the Trump administration that would cover one-off strikes or update the existing one.

“He has the authority under the existing AUMF,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Thursday of the president’s authority to hit Syria. The Wisconsin Republican dismissed the thought of considering another authorization. “What I would hate to do … is have an AUMF that ties the hands of our military behind their backs,” Ryan said, specifically declining to get ahead of the president.

“He is taking a very serious and deliberate approach to this,” he said.

“Sure, there is a lot that Congress could do,” said Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and George Washington University. “But I would be absolutely astonished if Congress did a thing.”

“The people’s representatives in a democracy ought to play a role in the country’s decisions to go to war,” he added. “But I see no signs this Congress is poised to do anything to restrain this president.”

This expected inaction comes as many Democratic members are raising alarms about the additions of the hawkish John Bolton (national security adviser) and military force proponent Mike Pompeo (the CIA director nominated for secretary of State) to what Senate Foreign Relations member Jeff Merkley on Saturday called Trump’s “War Cabinet.”

The Oregon Democrat warned that Pompeo, who had his confirmation hearing before Corker’s committee last week, is poised to take full advantage of lawmakers’ collective inaction on exercising their war powers.

“What I heard was deeply disturbing. Pompeo argued that there is no real limit on a commander in chief’s power to go to war,” Merkley said of that hearing. “He didn’t think the Constitution’s assignment of war powers to Congress made any difference. … You have a war Cabinet primed to launch a battle.”

Also consider Corker’s comment to reporters last Tuesday that no president would need congressional authorization for a single missile strike in Syria. “The 2001 AUMF would cover that,” he said three days before Trump gave the go order.

Pushing for a strategy

What is most likely this week is that the group of lawmakers who frequently call for an updated AUMF will use the strikes to try to get some momentum for their cause.

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It was just Thursday that Kaine, the group’s most vocal member, was asking Pompeo for help in getting access to a seven-page memo that the Trump administration reportedly crafted last year outlining the legal justification for the April 2017 bombing raid in Syria.

Kaine had sought the memo’s release back in February in a letter to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He is among the most consistently outspoken critics of U.S. military intervention overseas, either without specific congressional authorization or under the auspices of the post-9/11 AUMF. 

But as long as operations like Friday’s are limited in scope and targets, there probably will not be much pushback from Capitol Hill.

That could all change in the event of what may be inevitable mission creep, however.

Even senior lawmakers supportive of the latest strikes and the administration’s commitment to do more want to know about the longer-term objectives.

By all indications, the AUMF that Corker is working on would be the basis for a debate over the president’s authority to go after terrorists and supporters of terrorism — but that conversation could now easily become intertwined with the American, French and British engagement in Syria.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for instance, was among those seeking a broader explanation of the Syria plan from the Trump administration.

“This latest chemical weapons attack against the Syrian people was a brutally inhumane war crime that demands a strong, smart and calculated response. One night of airstrikes is not a substitute for a clear, comprehensive Syria strategy,” the California Democrat said in a statement. “The president must come to Congress and secure an [AUMF] by proposing a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives that keep our military safe and avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians.”

Pelosi was among the congressional leaders notified of the strikes Friday by Vice President Mike Pence ahead of Trump’s address to the nation, according to a spokesman for the vice president.

Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, a supporter of Friday’s actions, is also seeking clarity on a long-term strategy.

“To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the entire region. The President needs to lay out our goals, not just with regard to ISIS, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Airstrikes disconnected from a broader strategy may be necessary, but they alone will not achieve U.S. objectives in the Middle East,” the Arizona Republican said in a statement.

Jason Dick and Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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