According to most news reports Donald Trump received high marks from many in Congress and from much of the American electorate when he ordered the bombing of a single airfield in Syria last week. He was responding to the use by Syria of chemical weapons against civilians in a remote town that killed or severely injured many children. Mr. Trump was apparently shocked at the sight of the suffering and dying children when they were shown in television reports of the attack.
In less than 24 hours, he ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles. The missiles mostly missed their target (if the target was the actual runways from which Syrian jets take off), and in only a few days the airfield was reportedly back in operation. But Mr. Trump was applauded for going with the military response, as if the response solved the problem.
And, of course, it did not. Syria is still ruled by a brutal dictator who is supported by Russia and Iran. And Syria is still producing thousands of refugees in a civil war that shows no sign of ending soon, while large parts of the country are still under ISIS control. And by bombing a country that posed no threat to the United States without United Nations authorization, Trump was violating international law. So, he can now add war criminal to his list of “accomplishments.”
He was also violating U.S. law if he didn’t inform Congress within 48 hours of the bombing of how the action was authorized by the War Powers Act. That 1973 resolution only authorizes the president to commit U.S. forces to military action if Congress declares war, or if statutory authorization for the action exists, or if a national emergency exists because of an attack on the country or its territories. Of those three options, only the second is remotely plausible. The AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force), enacted by Congress in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, allows the president to use military force against those responsible for the attacks and any “associated forces.”
An argument can be made (albeit it isn’t a good one) that ISIS qualifies as “associated forces” (being an alleged offshoot of al Qaeda; it isn’t: ISIS exists because of the invasion of Iraq, which was justified not because of the 9/11 attacks but because of the claim that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons). But Trump did not launch the Tomahawk missiles against ISIS. He launched them against the sovereign nation of Syria.
Thus he violated international law and domestic law in one fell swoop. And, in so doing, he became a war criminal, just as George W. Bush was before him when he invaded Iraq in violation of international law, and committed an impeachable offense (one of several to date).
Trump faces a serious problem in the continuing struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where that war continues, largely under the radar of media coverage. But his biggest problem is the North Korea situation. There, a man who may well be mentally unbalanced (or at least appears to be so), and has nuclear weapons, may be close to having the ability (with intercontinental missiles) to drop nuclear bombs on cities on the U.S. West Coast. That’s a problem that isn’t going to be resolved by Tomahawk missiles.
In fact, any pre-emptive military action against North Korea runs the risk of starting a war with China and possibly even Russia, not to mention of putting the security of South Korea and Japan at great risk. No, the real problems that Trump faces in North Korea, and will undoubtedly face in other parts of the world if his administration lasts long enough, won’t be resolved with impetuous shows of military strength. They will only be solved with complex diplomacy that requires building alliances and finding mutual interests with nations like Russia and China.
It will also require maintaining strong partnerships with countries like Germany and France and Great Britain and the rest of the western alliance that is best represented by NATO. And those countries won’t respond well to rash military moves that create greater instability and foster uncertainty and distrust.
The Trump administration is obviously still trying to figure things out. (That’s stating the case charitably.) The Secretary of State is acting like a fish out of water. He clearly doesn’t have a definitive world-view and since the president doesn’t either, the nation’s foreign policy is uncertain, rudderless. The Secretary of Defense and the new National Security Advisor are both solid professionals, but they may not yet have the president’s ear. The son-in-law clearly does, but he is learning on the fly, and even assuming he is very smart and highly capable, he doesn’t have any experience. The daughter seems grounded and may well steer the president away from some of his more irrational impulses, but to this point, she certainly hasn’t turned him around on things like climate change or healthcare.
Steve Bannon’s dismissal (or resignation) would be a welcome sign, but even without him directing things, the “dismantling of the administrative state” will still be underway with cabinet secretaries like the ones at Energy, Health and Human Services, and the EPA pushing mid-level bureaucrats to undo agency regulations.
And then there is the Russia collusion scandal, which one assumes, is on the verge of being labelled as Russia-gate. Whether the various investigations that are on-going will ultimately reveal anything of consequence remains to be seen, but there’s an awful lot of smoke for there to be no fire.
Legislatively, the administration is oh-for-one, but it is also lacking any real potential at this point to get anything meaningful/significant through a Congress that is wholly Republican. Of course, what one Republican finds acceptable another will never accept, which is why the Repeal and Replace bill couldn’t even get to a vote in the House. (Never mind what fate it would have faced in the Senate.)
Trump did get his Supreme Court nominee through, but at a great cost in terms of the functioning of the Senate. He is destroying a lot more than he is building, and on that point, the bombing of the Syrian airfield is an apt metaphor.