Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator who has been willing to wreak violence on his own people in order to keep his grip on power. The missile attack unleashed by Donald Trump, accompanied by our French and British allies, however, is both reckless and lawless.
Whatever the stated rationale for the airstrikes on Homs and Damascus (ostensibly to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons), the bottom line is that they are a violation of international law and of our own Constitution, and moves the United States a step closer to direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
The attack demonstrates that the United States still considers itself to be not simply the indispensable nation but a global policeman above the law. With the president claiming the right to use military force anywhere without congressional authorization—and Congress so supine that, with few honorable exceptions, it does not object—and the foreign-policy establishment across the board claiming the right to use force in direct, open, and arrogant violation of international law, we have reached the point where the US president acts as cop, judge, jury, and executioner.
With this president, of course, illegality has become the norm. Trump and our allies unleashed the attack even as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was traveling to Syria to provide an independent, authoritative investigation of the attack on Douma and determine whether or not in fact chemical weapons were used, and if so, by whom. Trump preferred, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, sentence first, verdict after.
To protect the Syrian people from the horrors of alleged chemical-weapons use, we unleash missiles and bombs on the Syrian people. To enforce an alleged—and, if true, grotesque—violation of the international chemical-weapons ban, we trample the international ban on wars of aggression. Yes, yes, Trump says the mission was “perfect,” and called it—in an absurd echo of George W. Bush’s infamous 2003 pronouncement about the Iraq War—“mission accomplished.” The media feature the tactical questions of how and what and when. We hear all the usual nonsense about smart weapons, surgical bombing.
This raid—celebrated by neocons and their liberal interventionist allies alike—derives from America’s unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the heady liberal interventionists decided, in Madeleine Albright’s words, that the United States was the “indispensable nation,” that we could act because “we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” From that came the arrogant assumption that the United States could scorn the same international laws that it had championed at Nuremberg after World War II.