Trump’s Syria Air Strikes: A Perverse Advance in International Law?

Are we now at war in Syria? We already were. Since 2011, the United States has trained and equipped various factions opposed to Bashar al-Assad and deployed massive force against ISIS. In 2016 alone, as Juan Cole points out, the Obama administration dropped more than 12,000 bombs on Syria. That these targeted ISIS positions is beside the point: the United States has long played a role in the Syrian conflict. A confused actor in a confusing theatre is still an actor in a theatre.

Some might argue that President Obama’s actions were counter-terrorism measures justified by the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF). But the April 6 attack was permissible under domestic law, as well: presidents have largely unfettered discretion under the War Powers Resolution (1973), which allows a president to engage in military action of limited scope and duration without congressional approval. Presidents need only report to Congress within forty-eight hours and end the action in less than sixty days. (The WPR was the legal basis for President Obama’s intervention in Libya.) The constitutional principle described in United States v. Curtiss-Wright (1936) thus tends still to hold: that the limited and enumerated powers of the Constitution apply only to domestic matters; “in international relations, the President is the sole organ of the Federal Government.” That these airstrikes were launched on a presidential whim—quite literally ordered on the way to a dinner party—is not a Trump problem, nor a lingering Obama problem, nor even a war on terror problem. It is an America problem: the direct consequence of building an enormous military machine and then casually tossing the keys to the president so that he can take it out for a joy ride whenever the mood strikes him.


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