Trump’s strikes restart de­bate over war pow­ers

Crit­ics out­num­bered on Capi­tol Hill

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Sen. Rand Paul sounded one of the more dis­cor­dant notes last week af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­tal­ia­tory mis­sile strike against the Syr­ian regime, sug­gest­ing it was ill-ad­vised and il­le­gal, and in­sist­ing Congress needs to get in­volved.

But af­ter years of grid­lock, the Ken­tucky Repub­li­can ac­knowl­edged there is lit­tle hope that Capi­tol Hill will take up the is­sue or, if it does, that it will do any bet­ter this time. Asked what it would take, his an­swer was suc­cinct: “Dif­fer­ent col­leagues.”

The strike against an air­field that the U.S. says was the stag­ing point for last week’s chem­i­cal weapons at­tack on civil­ians has reignited the de­bate over U.S. pol­icy in the re­gion — and over how much au­thor­ity the pres­i­dent has to act with­out hav­ing to go to Congress.

A small but vo­cal group of law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Mr. Paul, said Mr. Trump’s mis­sile strikes were il­le­gal and in­sisted that any mil­i­tary ac­tion against a gov­ern­ment that hasn’t at­tacked the U.S. must get con­gres­sional ap­proval first.

“Hav­ing served on ac­tive duty as a JAG, I am well aware of the le­gal au­thor­i­ties for the use of mil­i­tary force. Pres­i­dent Trump’s uni­lat­eral de­ci­sion to launch 59 Tom­a­hawk mis­siles at an­other

coun­try’s mil­i­tary — which had not at­tacked the U.S. — was un­con­sti­tu­tional,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who is still a colonel in the Air Force Re­serve and a mem­ber of the Judge Ad­vo­cate Gen­eral’s Corps.

But the vast ma­jor­ity of law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill said the se­ries of strikes was a prop­erly pro­por­tion­ate re­sponse to the hor­rific use of nerve gas agents on Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s own peo­ple.

“I thought it was very clear what this strike was about. You don’t use chem­i­cal weapons with­out con­se­quences. I think that’s a pretty clear mes­sage, and I don’t nec­es­sar­ily read into that a larger strat­egy in the area,” said Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, Ken­tucky Repub­li­can.

Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion to en­force the red line, first clum­sily drawn by Pres­i­dent Obama, took Wash­ing­ton by sur­prise. Af­ter years of warn­ing that the U.S. should stay out of the Syr­ian mess, Mr. Trump said the pho­tos of chil­dren suf­fer­ing from the chem­i­cal at­tack were too much for the civ­i­lized world to tol­er­ate.

Some law­mak­ers are wor­ried about the next steps and ap­pear ea­ger to pin down the pol­icy of a pres­i­dent who just days ago said he wasn’t con­cerned about Mr. As­sad.

“We can­not stand by in si­lence as dic­ta­tors mur­der chil­dren with chem­i­cal weapons,” said Rep. Steve Rus­sell, Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can, and Rep. Seth Moul­ton, Mas­sachusetts Demo­crat, who are chair­men of the War­rior Cau­cus of com­bat vet­er­ans in Congress.

“But mil­i­tary ac­tion with­out clear goals and ob­jec­tive gets us nowhere. We look for­ward to hear­ing the pres­i­dent present a plan for Syria to the Amer­i­can peo­ple, for Congress to agree on bi­par­ti­san ac­tion, and for Amer­ica to part­ner with the world com­mu­nity to help bring this treach­er­ous con­flict to an end,” the two law­mak­ers said.

Sen. Christo­pher Mur­phy, Con­necti­cut Demo­crat, said Mr. Trump ap­peared to be “free-styling” in his ap­proach to Syria and showed dis­dain for Congress’ war-mak­ing au­thor­i­ties.

“If you can’t get an au­tho­riza­tion of mil­i­tary force from Congress to strike in Syria or an­other coun­try in the Mid­dle East, then you shouldn’t do it,” Mr. Mur­phy said.

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, de­manded that Repub­li­cans can­cel a two-week spring break and re­con­vene the House to de­bate mil­i­tary pol­icy in Syria.

“As heart­break­ing as As­sad’s chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks on his own peo­ple was, the cri­sis in Syria will not be re­solved by one night of airstrikes,” she said. “The killing will not stop with­out a com­pre­hen­sive po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to end the vi­o­lence.”

The U.S. has con­ducted nearly 8,000 strikes against tar­gets in Syria since Mr. Obama first com­mit­ted the mil­i­tary to op­er­a­tions in the coun­try in 2014. Those strikes were tar­geted at the Is­lamic State. Mr. Obama also com­mit­ted a small num­ber of Amer­i­can troops to help rebels fight the Is­lamic State group, and Mr. Trump last month boosted the num­ber of those troops.

But the U.S. airstrikes were the first di­rected specif­i­cally against the Syr­ian regime, leav­ing a num­ber of law­mak­ers to say it went be­yond the pow­ers that Congress granted in the 2001 Au­tho­riza­tion for the Use of Mil­i­tary Force that gave pres­i­dents the power to tar­get al Qaeda, the Tal­iban and af­fil­i­ated in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions.

First Mr. Obama and now the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ar­gue that the Is­lamic State is an off­shoot of an off­shoot of al Qaeda.

Law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill have long dis­puted that as­ser­tion.

In 2015, af­ter years of heck­ling from Congress, Mr. Obama wrote his own pro­posed AUMF for Syria and the fight against the Is­lamic State and sent it to Capi­tol Hill. Some mem­bers of Congress said it went too far, an­other fac­tion said it didn’t go far enough — and the leg­is­la­tion was quickly shelved, leav­ing the pres­i­dent with a free hand to con­tinue.

Mr. McCon­nell didn’t seem ea­ger to restart the AUMF de­bate this year and said it is up to Mr. Trump to de­cide if he wants more war pow­ers.

“If the pres­i­dent can think of some AUMF that he thinks strength­ens his hand, I’d be happy to take a look at it,” Mr. McCon­nell said.


Sen. Rand Paul, Ken­tucky Repub­li­can and a mem­ber of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, is among a small but vo­cal group of law­mak­ers who say Pres­i­dent Trump’s mis­sile strikes were il­le­gal and in­sisted that any mil­i­tary ac­tion against a gov­ern­ment that hasn’t at­tacked the U.S. must get con­gres­sional ap­proval first.

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