2017-04-16 / Opinion

Hard questions, no easy answers

By Pat Nevada

Say What?

“Hooray! Finally, we’re showing Bashar al-Assad that he can’t continue to brutalize his people — especially children!”

Yes, I confess that was my first response on reading Friday morning’s — April — headlines that President Donald Trump had ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles Thursday evening. His target, the Shayrat air base from which Syrian President Bashar al Assad launched a chemical weapons attack two days earlier. Assad attacked his own people. He killed more than 80 men, women and children. Apparently, he used an outlawed, toxic nerve gas — sarin.

Normally, I’m more dovish, than hawkish, so my reaction surprised me. However, seeing innocent civilians writhing on the ground, gasping for breath and foaming at the mouth makes any of us feel both great sympathy for the victims and rage toward the killer. And, seeing babies and young children suffer so grievously really raises the ire of most of us.

My anger didn’t end there! No, I thought, “Now, there’s a message to Putin, Kim Jong Un, and even Xi Jinping, as well. Xi, China’s leader, was — at that very moment — the guest of President Trump at Maro-a-Lago. Some way to treat a guest, eh?

I was not alone in my reaction. According to an April 9 New York Times article, “Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning in Mr. Obama’s State Department, wrote on Twitter, ‘Finally!! After years of useless hand-wringing in the face of hideous atrocities.’”

And, “Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state for human rights for Mr. Obama, wrote for The Atlantic, ‘Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. The lesson I would draw from that experience is that when dealing with mass killing by unconventional or conventional means, deterrence is more effective than disarmament.’”

Others offered their approval. Republican senators John McCain, Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, S.C., thought the move was right. Former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry agreed. In fact, Kerry said that he was, “Gratified that it happened quickly.”

And, to Trump’s credit, the air strikes were restrained, aimed only at warehouses and planes. The strikes intentionally left the air-base’s runways intact. Also, Russia was given a heads up to help preclude casualties. After all, this was only a warning to Assad: “Do not use banned poisonous gases.”

Despite all of that, I began to feel queasy. Although, I found smacking Assad’s wrist gratifying, I had second thoughts.

Should this President, or any president, launch attacks, unprovoked, on another sovereign country without the consent of Congress?

According to an April 7 Vox article, a Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith wrote Friday morning at the blog Lawfare, “It is a remarkable fact about the US Constitution, that 228 years after its creation, we still don’t know what limits, if any, it imposes on unilateral presidential uses of military force.

“Article II of the Constitution says that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces — which means he’s responsible for directing them into battle. But Article I of the Constitution gives Congress, and Congress alone, the authority to declare war — and to appropriate funds to the Defense Department to wage it.”

I cannot clearly see how the war powers should be distributed.

It only seems logical that the president needs to be able to respond immediately in the event of an attack. According to Wikipedia, “It is generally agreed that the commander-in-chief role gives the President power to repel attacks against the United States.”

That does not clarify whether the invading attack must be on the United States proper or if the attack can be elsewhere. It seems practical that the president have the right to retaliate immediately without going to congress if the attack is on our mainland, Alaska or Hawaii. (Of course, Puerto Rico, as a U.S territory whose residents are U.S. citizens, should fall under that protection, as well.) In the event of an actual on-land attack, an immediate military response would likely be necessary. So, yes, if that happens, the president should have instant command.

Beyond a direct attack on our nation’s lands, do we really want our president to have power to attack or initiate a war anywhere, for any reason? Shouldn’t we retain a strong check on executive war powers? We never want to go to war on a whim or for political purposes. Plus, do we really want our president to be our “Arms in Chief?”

Actually, the division of war powers was apparently not an issue until 1950, when President Harry S. Truman ordered U.S. air and naval forces to South Korea to help them fend off an invasion by communist North Korea. Truman explained that he aimed to help the United Nations enforce its peace resolution for Asia.

That same year, he sent the Military Assistance Advisory Group, plus $10 million worth of U.S. military equipment, to help the French guard against a communist invasion in the area of Vietnam.

Both Korea and Vietnam were conflicts, not declared wars. By 1973, when President Richard Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia, during the Vietnam conflict, congress and U.S. citizens were weary of war. So, Congress passed, despite Nixon’s veto, The War Powers Act. The act required the president to notify Congress when he got the United States involved in “hostilities.” Congress had a 60- to 90-day time frame to either approve that action, by passing an authorization of use of military force, or to require that the president withdraw from the conflict.

Even when the president and congress aimed to ensure that wars we engaged in were essential, we still managed to experience the questionable war in Iraq in 2003. That invasion was based on misinformation.

So, what will the President do? Well, according to a White House official, “…more than two dozen members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, were briefed Thursday by White House and Cabinet officials. House Speaker Paul Ryan, confirmed that he was among those who were briefed.”

Also, over the weekend of April 8-9, the President sent a letter to Congress, however it was more of a statement than a request.

Shouldn’t the President seek Congress’s approval?

If Mr. Trump does not seek approval, then Congress needs to issue an Authorization for Use of Military Force — an AUMF, or Congress can deny approval. As congressional members, they supposedly have access to information that we — regular citizens — do not. Still, figuring out the best course of action will be difficult, but that is their job and they have been ducking their responsibility. Congress needs to deliberate, debate and reach a decision on the knotty question of dealing with Syria. My fear is that petty dictators and mob bosses — as Putin is — understand nothing less than force.

As Congressional members debate whether or not to approve the attacks on Syria, they might consider what Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith wrote. “There’s no bright line about when something counts as a war that Congress must approve, and when it’s simply a military action the president can direct. (All of this is separate from the question of whether a given military operation is legal under international law — which is also a valid question about Trump’s strikes against Assad.)”

Do we want to risk becoming embroiled in another war like Iraq or conflict like the one in Vietnam?

Yet, can we turn our backs on innocent civilians, who are racked by the atrocities of war?

Can we turn down the plaintive pleas of Syrians who say, “We’re tired inside. We’re tired of planes. We want to live a normal life.”

Can we continue to watch babies die gruesome deaths?

The questions are hard; the answers not easy.

Pat Nevada, whose opinions are her own, is a freelance writer who lives near Gettysburg.

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