Trump’s Illegal Attack on Syria Has Started

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

The illegal attack on Syria that the Trump administration has been threatening for the last week has started:

President Trump ordered a military attack against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, joining allies Britain and France in launching missile strikes in retaliation for what Western nations said was the deliberate gassing of Syrian civilians.

The U.S. and its allies have committed a flagrant violation of international law, and Trump has trampled on the Constitution once again. This attack probably won’t succeed on its own terms, and it risks a larger conflagration. It remains to be seen how large and prolonged the latest intervention turns out to be, but whatever happens next it was wholly unnecessary for US security, a breach of the U.N. Charter, and completely illegal according to US law. If Congress does nothing to challenge the president’s illegal attack, they will be accepting own irrelevance in matters of war from now on.

Trump’s statement announcing the attack contained a lot of the usual moralizing rhetoric we have come to expect from presidents when they start unnecessary military interventions. At one point, he even refers to the “righteous power” of the US and its allies without appreciating how ridiculous and pompous this sounds to everyone in the region and most nations around the world. Incredibly, he addressed Syria’s patrons and asked, “What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?” Trump should know the answer, since he just hosted one of the chief architects of the war on Yemen that the US has backed to the hilt for the last three years. Britain welcomed the Saudi crown prince earlier on, and France just hosted him in the last few days. All three have been arming and supporting the Saudis and their allies in Yemen no matter how many atrocities they commit. There may be governments that have the moral authority to lecture Syria and its allies over their atrocious conduct, but the Trump administration and our British and French allies aren’t among them.

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Britain Debates the Illegal Attack on Syria

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Isabel Hardman reports on how the Syria intervention debate is developing in Britain:

Theresa May is holding an emergency Cabinet meeting today on how to respond to the latest chemical weapons attack in Syria. Already sources are briefing that the Prime Minister is prepared to take military action without a vote in Parliament, which has naturally enraged a number of parliamentarians.

Jeremy Corbyn has said that ‘parliament should always be given a say on military action’, and the SNP have said that a failure to do so would be a ‘scandal’. As we know from the military interventions of the past few years, parliament does not have any formal right to a vote before action, but since the Iraq War, it has become the convention for Prime Ministers to seek approval from MPs anyway.

The House of Commons famously refused to support the proposed 2013 bombing of the Syrian government, and that result embarrassed Obama into seeking Congressional authorization that was not forthcoming. Parliament unexpectedly set in motion of a chain of events that halted the U.S.-led attack on Syria back then, and hawks in both the U.S. and Britain have bitterly regretted letting elected representatives have anything to do with foreign policy ever since. The 2013 popular backlash against unnecessary and illegal war was a remarkable episode that has sadly not been repeated in the years that followed.

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The Costs of an Illegal Attack on Syria

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway explain at length why an attack on Syria would be illegal:

  1. Bottom line: If you support the coming air strike in Syria, you are supporting a rationale that allows the president to use air power unilaterally basically whenever he sees fit.

  2. The coming air strike will violate international law. The United Nations Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This most important of international laws has three exceptions, none of which are implicated here: First, Syria has not consented to the strikes; second, the U.N. Security Council has not authorized the strikes.; and third, the United States is not acting in self-defense.

It is worth noting that these legal interpretations aren’t being seriously disputed by anyone. There is a fairly broad consensus that there is no legal justification for the attack that is probably starting in the next few days. No one honestly thinks the president has the authority to order attacks against states that haven’t attacked us or our allies, and no one is claiming that an attack wouldn’t violate international law. The illegality of attacking Syria is obvious and undeniable, but Congressional leaders simply don’t care. Congress’ abdication in matters of war is not new, but it is particularly dangerous at the moment when there is a real possibility that a reckless president will order attacks on the forces of as many as three other governments. Trump’s domestic critics that have pleaded with him to take a harder line with Russia are about to get their wish granted in the worst possible way.

Hawkish interventionists like to talk about how the U.S. upholds the “international order,” but a U.S.-led attack on Syria would be one of the most egregious violations of the so-called international order in at least the last thirty years. It would be a direct assault on one of the bedrock principles of the post-WWII international system, and it would constitute a flagrant breach of the U.N. Charter. The U.S. would be demonstrating to the world once again that it disregards its international obligations whenever it pleases and can’t be trusted to honor its commitments.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and is a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter. This article is reprinted from The American Conservative with permission.

Bolton’s Terrible Ideas for Syria

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

To get some idea of what John Bolton will tell Trump about Syria, it is useful to revisit an old Bolton op-ed from a few years ago. It may give us some clues about the position he’ll take on Syria today, and it is a helpful reminder that he is remarkably wrong about virtually everything he writes about. Bolton wrote this back in 2015:

Today’s reality is that Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone. The Islamic State has carved out a new entity from the post-Ottoman Empire settlement, mobilizing Sunni opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Iran-dominated government of Iraq. Also emerging, after years of effort, is a de facto independent Kurdistan.

If, in this context, defeating the Islamic State means restoring to power Mr. Assad in Syria and Iran’s puppets in Iraq, that outcome is neither feasible nor desirable. Rather than striving to recreate the post-World War I map, Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.

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Trump Should Withdraw US Forces from Syria, But He Won’t

Originally appeared on The American Conservative.

Max Boot rails against the possibility that our illegal, unnecessary war in Syria might come to an end:

If the United States leaves both Syria and Iraq, it will be an incalculable windfall for Iran, a rogue state that Trump claims to hate – but not as much as he seems to hate long-term commitments.

I doubt very much that Trump will follow through on the suggested withdrawal for a few reasons. First, his incoming Secretary of State and National Security Advisor are sure to be vehemently opposed to doing this, and Trump is more malleable than clay when the people around him know how to flatter him and speak to him in terms he understands. Second, Trump fetishizes looking “tough” and hates appearing “weak,” and the foreign policy “Blob” will work overtime to make sure that he thinks a decision to leave Syria (the correct and relatively courageous decision) would be the latter. Boot’s criticism of a decision Trump probably won’t make is presumably just one of the first of these attacks. Third, hostility to Iran is one of the few constants in Trump’s foreign policy, so we have to assume that when staying in Syria is presented to him that way he will acquiesce in staying. Trump thinks that Obama was too accommodating to Iran, and he is determined to do the opposite of whatever he thinks Obama did. Finally, Trump has proven that he is a pushover for the Saudis and Israelis, and both governments have saidthat they want the U.S. to stay for a long time. Disregarding these clients’ preferences is what Trump thinks Obama would do, and so he won’t blow them off as he should.

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The Consequences of Blowing Up the Nuclear Deal

Originally appeared on The American Conservative February 28, 2018.

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz spells out what the nuclear deal with Iran does and what withdrawing from it would mean:

Conversely, if Trump withdraws the United States from the agreement, with Iran complying and with our allies clearly committed to its continuation, he will have compromised the most stringent nuclear verification standard ever achieved, with no credible prospect for restoring or improving it [bold mine-DL]. Such a move would hand Iran a political “wedge” dividing the international community, and undercut vital arguments for verification of any agreement reached with North Korea.

Opponents of the deal often claim to be against it because it isn’t “tough” enough, but as Moniz explains the deal contains the “most robust verification measures the world has ever known.” Withdrawing from the deal means throwing that away for no good reason. If Trump follows through on his threat to withdraw, he will confirm that his complaints about the agreement were made in bad faith. Reneging on the deal just because some of its restrictions expire after a decade or more gives the game away. It gives Iran the excuse to ignore some or all of the deal’s restrictions immediately instead of having some of them lifted in the 2020s or 2030s. We’re supposed to believe that the gradual expiration of some restrictions is so intolerable that we should throw away all of the restrictions right away. It’s a completely irrational position, and so it’s obviously just a bad excuse for killing an agreement that Iran hawks never wanted.

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