Are Rand and Amash Right on Syria?

Yesterday, the United States launched a swift and decisive assault of 59 tomahawk missiles on a Syrian airfield in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people, which resulted in the deaths of at least 70, among them children.

Just as swiftly and decisively, Senator Rand Paul and others, including my home state of Michigan’s representative, Justin Amash, warned that President Trump must seek congressional approval for military action in Syria and offered reminders of the mess intervention in the Middle East has historically been.

Autumn Price wrote of on Senator Paul’s warnings even before the missile retaliation was reported, and he has since continued his verbal barrage via Twitter.

These members of the Freedom Caucus, who saved us from what has affectionately become known as Swampcare, are now intent on saving us from an imperial presidency in Syria. But are they right?

Rep. Amash wrote that the airstrikes were an act of war.

I think one would be hard-pressed to find any military action that Amash does not consider an act of war. That being said, the Constitution does not define all military action as war and presidents from the beginning have used the military outside the bounds of a congressionally-declared war. Undoubtedly, Amash and Paul would consider most of the incidences illegal, but other reasonable interpretations see the powers of commander-in-chief to include extrabellum military action. Indeed, it is conceivable that such action could be necessary to avoid war, which itself carries many obligations — legally, for alliances, and in other ways.

This is the logic of the War Powers Resolution, which fills in the space with procedures and under which President Trump appears to be on solid ground. Though it is not perfect, the Resolution is an attempt to balance these powers where the Constitution is not explicit. (Ironically, it was passed in light of Vietnam and Watergate, when skepticism of executive power, especially as it regards war, was rising, and it was intended to curtail such power.)

I offer no expert opinion on the legalities, nor am I an expert of military strategy. The bombing, which draws a real red line on civilian targeting, is a limited and clear response. I see no reason why it isn’t legal. The Republican-controlled Congress, with the help of some Democrats, such as Senator Schumer and Congresswoman Pelosi, could pass authorization of force in Syria to further cement the legitimacy of this (and perhaps future) action, but the real question concerns what comes next.

Early yesterday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the new policy in Syria is regime change. Military action intended to oust a head of state is inarguably an act of war and will need congressional approval. Such approval will be much harder to obtain, for the simply reason that, as Steve Berman pointed out yesterday, there are no great options in Syria.

Yesterday’s strike admirably walks a tightrope, making the civilian targeting costly for Assad without tipping the balance to ISIS. Regime change could result in a Libya-like situation (and, with chemical weapons clearly in the same country as ISIS, is strategically hazardous.) Stabilizing Assad is morally untenable. No third option for a stable and relatively inoffensive government is anywhere close of attainable for the time being.

This is why I opposed action in 2013, despite being heartbroken over the circumstance for innocents. The situation has changed, among other things worsening on the ground for civilians. It appears more imperative than ever to intervene, but no clearer how. It is there that Rand and Amash have a point.

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