The Corner

National Security & Defense

Congress Mulls Whether It Has Duty to Authorize Syria Action

On Thursday, President Donald Trump responded to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people by ordering a military strike on the airbase from which the chemical attack was launched. Most members of Congress gave the Trump administration their full-fledged support, suggesting that the administration’s response to Assad’s barbaric crime was just. Only a few members of Congress expressed an interest in enforcing Congress’s power to authorize a military strike; some were frustrated that Trump didn’t receive congressional authorization for yesterday’s attack, and others questioned when Congress ought to intervene if the conflict escalates into war.

Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, praised Trump after the attack. “Earlier this week the Assad regime murdered dozens of innocent men, women, and children in a barbaric chemical weapons attack,” he said. “Tonight the United States responded. This action was appropriate and just.” Ryan didn’t decry Trump for not seeking congressional approval before ordering 59 Tomahawk missiles to blow up the Syrian airbase. Rather, he praised Trump for his “appropriate and just” response.

House majority whip Steve Scalise also praised the Trump administration’s military strike without mentioning the president’s sidestepping of Congress. “The United States sent a clear message that we will not tolerate the slaughter of innocent citizens by the Assad regime,” Scalise tweeted. “I support President Trump for taking this strong and measured action.”

Other legislators espoused similar sentiments as Ryan and Scalise — but, interesting enough, some of them signed a letter in 2013 asking Obama to seek Congressional approval if military strikes in Syria were to be conducted. For example, South Carolina representative Joe Wilson, one of the nearly 100 legislators who signed the letter to Obama just four years ago, wrote, “This administration was clear — the United States would not tolerate the Syrian dictatorship committing atrocities against its own people. I commend President Donald Trump for his swift action, standing strong to protect American families from future missile attacks.”

Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that Trump’s airstrike didn’t need congressional authorization. “I think that this is not a situation that requires an AUMF, an authorization for the use of military force,” McConnell told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “We passed one in back in 2001 and 2002, I believe, and the previous president thought that it authorized what we were doing in that part of the world and I expect this president thinks the same.”

Certainly, some legislators in the Republican party — such as Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul — have made clear that Congress has the sole constitutional power to declare war, and Trump must seek approval from the bicameral legislature. But it seems that Democratic leadership, in particular, is planning to take Trump to task for his decision. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi is demanding that Speaker Ryan “call the House back in session immediately to debate any decision to place our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” If Speaker Ryan is serious about enforcing Congress’s power to authorize the use of military force, he’ll listen.

Austin YackAustin Yack is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute and a University of California, Santa Barbara alumnus.

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