If you’re torn over whether this merits a “Whoopee!” or an “Uh-oh,” you’re probably thinking the Middle East is a kaleidoscope of tribal, sectarian and state alliances and murderous animosities which U.S. policy makes have shown no better grasp of — or ability to control — than they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Libya.
This is not to mention the conflicts in Myanmar, the Philippines, Ethiopia, the Maghreb, Darfur, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Nonetheless, the anti-interventionist president is about to take the U.S. into what some constitutionalists might regard as an undeclared war, though Mr. Trump undoubtedly sees it as a retaliatory counterpunch that hardly rises to the level of a war. You bloody his nose, and he’ll bloody yours. He told Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and anyone else who might be involved not to cross the no-gassing line or face a military counterpunch.
This threatened counterpunch (or, for your constitutionalists, act of war) would be the second one in little more than a year against the same secularist Arab dictatorship and be delivered with relative impunity.
Syria is too small and militarily too weak to fight back, at least in a conventional-war sense. Longtime Syria chum Russia is another matter — but it’s highly unlikely to risk its own annihilation in an all-out war with the U.S.
So it’s perfectly understandable that Mr. Trump sees taking out warplanes, military bases, Syria’s military personnel and Russia’s military “advisers” as a limited, measured way to retaliate for an April 7 chemical attack on civilians in Douma, Syria, that killed more than 70 people.
Whether the president is aiming his military retaliation at the truly guilty party is up for discussion. So is whether retaliation serves U.S. financial or security interests.
Gen. Jack Keane says we need to go into this secular Arab dictatorship with guns blazing. He’s been assuring us on Fox News that the U.S. tracks every move by every Syrian warplane. We therefore know for sure, he asserts, that Mr. Assad is responsible for the latest vicious gas attack. And our bombs and rockets can and will make sure he can’t gas his own people again, an outcome worth whatever its cost us in blood and treasure because that’s what the U.S is all about.
From his corner of the debate ring, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson says U.S. authorities still aren’t sure Mr. Assad was behind last year’s gas attack last year. Back then Mr. Trump astonished China’s Permanent President Xi Jinping by announcing, over desert at Mar-a-Lago, that the U.S. was at that very moment Tomahawking a Syrian government airbase.
That it’s Mr. Trump’s stated intent to bomb Syria without any mention of the constitutionally required consent of Congress is nothing new. Since the second half of the last century, U.S. presidents have been ignoring Article 1, Section 8, which grants to Congress the sole power to declare war. Article II, Section 2 names the president as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, not as the decider on waging war.
Dodging the Constitution’s war-powers clause has been a tradition of presidents from Harry Truman’s “police action” in Korea to JFK and LBJ’s “extended military action” in Vietnam to Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia to the first President Bush’s undeclared Gulf war to the second President Bush’s unending military expeditions in Afghanistan and Iraq that have continued through Presidents Obama and Trump.
It’s entirely plausible to argue that bypassing the war-powers clause to attack Syria. even though it hasn’t attacked the U.S. and hasn’t threatened to do so, is nonetheless the most effective way to teach somebody a lesson.
It can also be argued that every time a president does that, he and the lawmakers who let him do it wind up making the Constitution a living document to be interpreted in light of current circumstances, instead of the way the Framers intended.
Worth pondering is why Mr. Assad would poke Mr. Trump in the eye by gassing civilians just after Mr. Trump, in violation of his own dictum about keeping U.S. intentions secret, announced the U.S. is preparing to pull out of Syria and leave Mr. Assad as its leader.
“We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” Mr. Trump said on April 6. “We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now … We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”
By “other people” he apparently meant U.S. allies in the region, a list that (besides Israel) includes definitely only the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Turkey, which is a reliable U.S. ally except when it isn’t, has shown itself to be at least as interested in killing Kurds, who are U.S. allies, as it is in killing ISIS fighters.
It seems at least plausible that some anti-Assad faction fighting in Syria wants to keep the U.S. military in the country and therefore carried out the chemical attack to make sure Mr. Trump keeps a military role in Syria.
That faction — fanatically religious or democratic — would want to prolong the civil war in the hope that Mr. Assad will go down and be replaced by a caliphate or by some pro-democratic element capable of governing the Shiite majority, the Alawite ruling class (itself factionalized), and the Sunni, Druze, Kurdish and Christian minorities. And everybody will be able to relax and go to the seashore on Sunday — or Friday, as the case may be.
The idea that somehow toxic gaseous chemicals that choke and poison people to death are worse than solid-state chemicals that explode people’s bodies into bloody pieces is another debatable proposition. The U.S. does not retaliate for bomb-and-bullet deaths, again except in cases when it does.
Cruelty and violent death, mostly unremarked, reign supreme in many spots on the globe. What any of it has to do with the U.S. might someday rise to the rank of Public Topic No. 1. Some think tonight or Thursday would not be too soon.
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