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analysis

George W. Bush and Barack Obama had two wars. Donald Trump, reluctant to be outdone in any arena by any of his predecessors, now has three.

While the conflict in Afghanistan, begun in the Bush years and now the longest war in American history, continues with no prospect of resolution, Mr. Trump last month initiated a trade war and last week opened a new offensive in the war against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Trump administration argues that the 100-plus missiles that the United States, Britain and France directed to targets in Syria eliminated the heart of that embattled country’s chemical-weapons capability.

This satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company, shows the Barzah Research and Development Center in Syria on Sunday following a U.S.-led allied missile attack.The Associated Press

But the missile strikes also triggered the fevered renewal of a separate, political war that on the weekend spilled beyond American domestic politics and prompted debate around the world, especially in Great Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May’s expression of triumph was met by charges from Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn that the raids were ‘’legally questionable.’’ The question will be the subject of a parliamentary debate in London on Monday.

Hardly anyone outside Iran and Russia, the two principal allies of Mr. al-Assad, has sympathy for the Syrian regime or for its use of chemical weapons, either in conventional combat or against civilians. That general contempt for the Syrian action provided a domestic – and perhaps international – legal shield for Mr. Trump and his partners in the missile attacks. Ms. May published that very legal defence for the action Sunday.

Even so, inside the United States, and in some corners outside the country, the attacks prompted a vigorous debate about international law and the limits of the presidential warmaking powers − a vital but unresolved question that has hovered over American politics since the First Barbary War of 1801-05.

This issue flared again on the weekend, with Senator Bernie Sanders his impact amplified because of his strong showing in the Democratic presidential primaries of 2016,of Vermont, arguing that it is ‘’Congress, not the President which has the constitutional responsibility for making war.’’ He added: ‘’The international community must uphold the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, but it is unclear how Trump’s illegal and unauthorized strikes on Syria achieve that goal.’’

The Constitution is clear on that matter, but that document was written in 1787, when the young United States was not a major power and barely had any armed forces, its few regiments serving purely defensive positions generally far from population centres. With a lingering distrust of standing armies dating from the colonial period, the country’s forces consisted mainly of state militia that posed little threat to the big powers of the late 18th century.

But Mr. Trump’s advisers and allies were ready with a swift 21st-century defence, maintaining that the attack was authorized by the mere Syrian use of chemical weapons. ‘’The President has emergency powers,’’ Kiron Skinner, a Carnegie Mellon professor of international relations and a member of Secretary of Defence James Mattis’s defence policy board, said in an interview, ‘’If he feels there is a threat − and he does define Syria in that context − he can take military action.’’

That view was supported by some experts in international law, although the legal question involved in Syria is almost as complex as the civil war that has raged there for seven years. It involves the collision of two revered, and internationally sanctioned, principles: It is illegal to attack another country. And it is impossible to ignore violations of international law such as the use of chemical weapons.

(it is) Congress, not the President, which has the constitutional responsibility for making war.

Senator Bernie Sanders

‘’He launched an attack on a sovereign state, and that is illegal,’’ said Donald McNemar, a political scientist specializing in international law at Bentley University in Massachusetts. ‘’But on the other hand, he is trying to reinforce an international agreement prohibiting the use of these weapons. The argument supporting the administration position is that unless this international law is maintained, it will wither away.’’

Indeed, the British defence of the action specifically noted that the attacks were justified because these chemical weapons constituted ’’a serious crime of international concern [and were] a breach of the customary international law prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity.”

The U.S. Constitution, in Article 1, Section 8, delegates the power to declare war to the Congress, which has done so 11 times, though two of them were in the First World War (once against Germany in April, 1917, then against Austria-Hungary almost exactly eight months later) and six of them were in the Second World War(including three separate ones on the same day in 1942 against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania). Neither the Korean War of the early 1950s (authorized by a vote of the United Nations Security Council, with Russia not present) nor the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 70s (authorized by the congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964) involved a declaration of war.

‘’Despite the absence of declarations of war, there has been lots of American blood shed and lots of American dead, sometimes under dubious authority ’’ Prof. Skinner said. ‘’The need to address this question is one of the fundamental post-20th-century challenges for the United States.’’

But Prof. Skinner said the raid in Syria is not part of that question. ‘’There is the larger question on the authority to use military force,’’ she said. ‘’But it doesn’t apply in this case because we are not committed to a long ground war.’’

These very questions during the Vietnam War − and the occasional conflict between the President’s role as commander-in-chief and the Congress’s role in declaring war − prompted Congress in 1973 to pass, over the veto of president Richard Nixon, the War Powers Act, designed, as the legislation stated, to “insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.’’

Congress was not consulted in this month’s Syria episode but, what is more, some American specialists on military affairs doubted the utility of these April raids.

‘’This is precisely what Trump as a campaigner − when he said we would win these damn things or get out − promised not to do,’’ said Andrew Bacevich, a leading military historian and theorist who teaches at Boston University. ‘’Militarily, this is of almost no significance whatsoever. It will not change the outcome of the Syrian civil war. He has allowed himself to buy into using force that has no pretense of producing decisive results and yet simply prolongs and extends our involvement.’’

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