The recent missile attack on Syria, in response to alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians by the Assad regime, revealed the scope of Donald Trump’s lawlessness. The attack, launched by the United States, Britain, and France, was an open violation of international law and the United Nations Charter, which is the centerpiece of the “rules-based” order that the United States claims to defend. The charter prohibits “the threat or use of force” against a sovereign nation, unless the attack is authorized by the UN Security Council, is an act of self-defense, or is consented to by the sovereign government. None of these provisions apply. Some argue that the attack is justified by the emerging “right to protect,” but that too permits intervention only with UN sanction.
Defenders of the strike argued that it was necessary to trample international law in order to enforce it. Former Obama State Department official Anne Marie Slaughter praised Trump for doing the “right thing,” and tweeted that “It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere and says enough.”
The attack also violated the US Constitution, which lodges the power to make war in the Congress and not the executive branch. Congress has provided no authority for the invasion of Syria. The post–September 11 Authorization to Use Military Force authorized action against the organizations that perpetrated 9/11, as well as their offshoots. No contortion of logic can stretch it to include the Assad regime, which has led the attack on IS in Syria.
The secret legal rationale—if there is one—would likely be based on the rationale invoked by both Obama and Trump for earlier strikes in Syria: that as commander in chief, the president may use military force to uphold regional stability and vital international norms in the national interest. This contention, as Jack Goldsmith, former attorney in the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, concluded, “places no limit at all on the president’s ability to use significant military force unilaterally.”
If Trump is allowed to step over legal lines like this, the consequences may be dire. That the impulsive, erratic, ignorant president claims the power to use the military anywhere at any time that he might decide is frightening enough. It becomes terrifying when combined with the views of the war cabinet he now seeks to assemble.