Presidents Can Do War, Willy-Nilly Or Otherwise

I rarely take exception to Kevin Williamson or Charlie Cooke at National Review. Doing so is what’s known in boxing as “fighting above your weight.”

Engaging with heavyweights is almost guaranteed to get you KO’d. But in this case, I think Williamson is using legal sniping to paper over a huge layer of moral cynicism in his piece titled “War, Willy-Nilly.”

Williamson posits that Bashar Assad’s use of sarin gas, or any other weapon in his evil arsenal, against his own people, isn’t anything with which America should be concerned. Callously, he wrote “we should let him.”

No. We shouldn’t. And I’ll qualify that after quoting Williamson:

This is not cynicism, only an acknowledgement of the actual facts of the case. As Daniel Pipes and others have persuasively argued, the United States does not have an ally in Syria. The United States does not have any national interest in the success of the ISIS-aligned coalition fighting to depose Assad. The United States does not have any interest in strengthening the position of the Assad regime and the position of his Russian and Iranian patrons. Pipes sums it up: “Iranian- and Russian-backed Shiite pro-government jihadis are best kept busy fighting Saudi-, Qatar-, and Turkish-backed anti-government Sunni jihadis.”

I agree with everything after “This is not cynicism.” It is, most certainly, cynicism. There are two tracks here, and Williamson (and on Twitter, Cooke, who cited the same piece the brilliant David French penned on War Powers) is in danger of conflating them. The first track is that Trump was almost certainly swayed by the manner of death of babies in innocents in Syria and the use of sarin gas. The second track is that Trump ordered Tomahawk strikes in response. The two things are separate.

As for engaging with David French et al on the technical legality of Trump’s order: I can’t begin to, nor am I qualified to try. But I do know this: no president has ever been impeached by Congress for violating the War Powers Act. Congress seems to realize that the courts would side with the president and the sanctity of executive powers of the Commander-in-Chief, as SCOTUS did in 2000.

Presidents seem to serially ignore it when it suits them, and then kowtow to Congress when they feel public opinion requires it.

Back in 2011, NPR’s Alan Greenblatt lamented that the War Powers Act “doesn’t work.”

Instead, the War Powers Act has largely been used as it’s being used now — as a political tool that allows Congress to criticize a president about the prosecution of a war.

“The rhetoric is sadly familiar,” says Gordon Adams, a foreign policy professor at American University. “It just flips by party, depending on who’s deploying the troops.”

It seems like anytime lawyers don’t like what a president has done, they trot out the War Powers Act and the limits of executive power. This is what Williamson has done.

Obviously, Assad is a bad actor. And it’s seemingly against character for Trump to turn on a dime based on one intelligence briefing (or is it?). So is this a policy question, or a moral question? Morally, Trump did exactly the right thing. Foreign leaders and many members of Congress agree that the response–a message to Assad–was needed and proportional.

The message was simply this: the next Sea Launched Cruise Missile might come through your bedroom window. This should give Assad some pause the next time he wants to employ chemical weapons against anyone. If Assad employed sarin gas against Kurdish fighters, and incidentally hit an American military adviser, would that give us more moral authority to strike?

Williamson can’t claim that Assad has more right to kill his own people with an internationally banned weapon than he has to kill ours. That might pass muster in a technical legal sense, but morally it’s a cynical, corrupt view.

And French’s view that a casus belli for war against Syria is simply Assad’s war crimes in general, and therefore the deadliness of the sarin attack versus other more deadly conventional attacks can’t be held to different standards ignores a key moral duty of America and other civilized countries. We should, as Trump said, oppose the use and spread of banned chemical weapons.

It doesn’t matter if the attack was not as deadly as other conventional war crimes. Chemical weapons (along with nuclear and biological–the “NBC” trifecta) require a response. Former President Obama noodled over this and decided it wasn’t worth defending. Trump instinctually knew it was.

We should not conflate Trump’s instinctual response to every president’s unchallenged right to pick and choose how the military is employed. Presidents do not recognize the force of constitutional law in the War Powers Act to limit their responses–they never have. In fact, presidents can make “war, willy-nilly” until Congress successfully challenges them by impeachment (which Williamson suggested) or by a successful appeal to SCOTUS.

All that being said–there’s the possibility that Williamson, Cooke, and French are right in their cynicism. It could be that Trump simply used the Syria story to deflect other bigger news. If that’s true, we have a much larger problem, in that The Joker has been elected president. I can’t personally muster enough cold cynicism to believe that out of the gate, but I’ll admit it’s not impossible.

However incidental to his motives, the sitting president did the right thing, and legally, like every president, he’s getting sniped by the cynical lawyers who don’t agree with it. To paraphrase Trump: he’s president, and they’re not. If they were in the Oval Office, they might think differently.

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