Syrian airstrike stretches AUMF to the breaking point


Summer finally approaches, and like many of you, I’m looking forward to travel, getting some reading done and just having some free time. But as always, I’m keeping an eye on upcoming political events, and there’s a lot we should all be paying attention to over the summer. The issue I’ll likely be most concerned with is that of U.S. military policy, especially in Syria. Earlier in April, the U.S. bombed a government airfield there after an apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians, the first U.S. attack on a Syrian government target since Syria’s civil war began.

Most responses from American pundits and Congressional leaders of both parties seemed to view the missile strike positively. News anchors like Brian Williams ghoulishly praised the “beauty of our weapons,” and Fareed Zakaria gushed over how Donald Trump “became president” by “enforcing justice in the world” through the partial destruction of a single airfield.

The response from Democratic politicians was not much different. Most senators expressed clear support for the airstrike, including a strong majority of Senate Democrats. On some level, this response is understandable. It came in the aftermath of a horrific attack on civilians evidently conducted by the Syrian government’s air force. Still, the nearly universal support for military action that had not been approved by Congress is disturbing. Despite how polarized our political culture may be, it seems like everyone loves a good war too much to care about whether it’s legal.

When asked for its legal justification for the missile strike, the Trump administration cited the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the 2001 law passed by Congress that authorizes the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against anyone who aided, planned or committed the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Once passed, the AUMF was almost immediately abused by the White House. The Bush administration used it to target Al Qaeda and the Taliban government protecting it in Afghanistan, but it also deceptively used it to justify its war in Iraq, one of our county’s greatest foreign policy debacles that led to the deaths of at least 500,000 people. Both wars received similar levels of overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic politicians as well as the bulk of the mainstream media.

The lack of critical opposition to war is excused by some as resulting from the biggest loss of life in a terrorist attack in our nation’s history. However, the AUMF continued to be stretched and abused to cover a global assassination program and multiple bombing campaigns that began under the Bush administration and continued into Barack Obama’s two terms. Democratic partisans who had expressed skepticism of the Bush administration’s use of the AUMF to justify all military action in the Middle East later zealously defended the Obama administration’s ability to do the same.

This was despite the warnings of anti-war critics who argued that while Democrats may be comfortable with the Obama administration being able to conduct war essentially at will and with no legal or Congressional oversight, they shouldn’t create such a precedent for future Republican administrations. At that time, most assumed the next serious Republican presidential hopeful would be a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio type. Instead, we’ve been cursed with a know-nothing commander in chief who’s been given de facto authority to conduct seemingly unrestricted warfare.

After citing the AUMF, the Trump administration made no efforts to explain how the previous authorization covered their airstrikes. They didn’t even pretend to care about obtaining Congressional authorization for military action, and they faced no serious challenge from Congress, which should have insisted on exercising its constitutional role as a check on the executive’s ability to unconditionally wage war.

This is the type of precedent that critics of the government’s use of the AUMF under Bush and Obama warned about. What we have now is worse than the worst-case scenario they foresaw. Instead of a typical hawkish Republican abusing the lack of Congressional oversight over military intervention, the finger on the button belongs to an easily manipulated, thin-skinned ignoramus whose global outlook changes with whatever cable news drivel he watches on television that morning.

Even for those who view the AUMF as an important tool for defending the U.S. from terrorism, does anyone actually trust someone like Trump to navigate the dangerous and murky waters of a civil war turned proxy war between multiple regional and global powers? Isn’t this exactly the type of situation in which the executive branch should be subject to Congressional oversight to keep them from overreaching and causing dangerous blowback?

A libertarian classmate of mine recently said that having Trump in office makes his life a lot easier – people finally realize why it’s important to constrain the government’s ability to do whatever it wants now that someone like Trump is in office. I hate to admit when a libertarian is right about something, but there’s no beating the argument that the ability to unleash America’s war machine should not be subject to one person’s whim, regardless of who the current president is … but especially when it’s this one.