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“Mission accomplished,” announced President Donald Trump after the United States, France and England unleashed more than 100 missiles on Syria in reaction to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people.
What the mission accomplished, however, should alarm us all. It will do nothing to end the suffering of the Syrian people, as the fighting continues in a brutal civil war now in its seventh year. It will do nothing to weaken the grip of Bashar al-Assad who, backed by Russia and Iran, has consolidated his hold on much of Syria.
The major casualties of the raid are international law and the Constitution of the United States, for this act openly violated both.
The UN Charter — the charter that the United States played a major role in drafting after World War II — prohibits the unprovoked attack of one country on another, except in self-defense, or with the sanction of the United Nations itself. Punitive attacks are outlawed for the very reason that they are an excuse that the strong use to wage war on the weak. Syria poses no threat to the U.S. or its allies.
The U.S. and its allies attacked even as an independent group — the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — was on its way to Syria to investigate the site and possibly provide independent assessment as to whether a chemical attack occurred and, if so, by whom. The attack took place without even that assessment.
Over the last 25 years, after the U.S. became the sole global power with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been efforts to develop the right to protect, essentially giving authority for attacking a regime to stop genocidal attacks on its people. But the right to protect can be enforced only with UN sanction. Otherwise it simply becomes an excuse for the strong to use when deciding to attack the weak.
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war. Congress has provided no authority to wage war on Syria.
The result is that the president now openly asserts the right to attack any country on his own hook, without the authority of the United Nations or the sanction of Congress. A president above the law is a violation of the founding principles of this Republic.
Some justify the act because the missile strikes are aimed to enforce the treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons, which Syria has signed. The use of chemical weapons is an outrage that should trigger international action. Russia and China have stopped the UN from acting. So, it is argued, the U.S. and its allies must act to punish the alleged violation of the global ban. This attack, it is argued, “draws a line.”
The problem with acting alone, however, is clear. The powerful will act only to punish opponents who are weak. The U.S. will not attack allies like Saudi Arabia for waging what increasingly appears to be a genocidal war in Yemen. It will not attack adversaries like China or Russia who are nuclear powers.
It attacks Syria only because Syria is an adversary and is weak and cannot defend itself.
This is hardly the way to enforce justice or legal order.
If the world will not join in enforcing the ban on chemical weapons, the ban will be undermined. We would be better off rousing global outrage at the Syrians for using chemical weapons and at the Russians and Chinese for blocking international action, than taking the law into our own hands.
Violation of international law and the Constitution can be dismissed as legalistic concerns. Syria has committed an outrage. The United States and its allies have punished them. But legal authority is what separates legitimate use of force from criminality. Respect for the law is what separates the civilized from the jungle.
This strike will make the president look “tough.” It will likely boost his approval ratings. But it is one more step toward a lawless and unaccountable executive that threatens the very basis of our democracy.