Emily Kowalik ’18
On April 6, President Donald J. Trump ordered the military to carry out a missile attack on Syrian forces. This action was in response to their use of chemical weapons against civilians. Many are now questioning whether Trump may have committed an act of war, considering that he lacked authorization from Congress and from the United Nations Security Council. Trump’s lack of clear authority under international law is causing top officials to question the justifications for this unilateral attack, considering it a punishment for Syria’s violation of the ban on chemical weapons. The Trump administration labeled the operation a deterrent against further chemical weapon use. However, two major legal issues are raised by this strike and they involve international as well as domestic law. First, it is unclear whether it is lawful for any nation to attack another nation. Second, many argue about whether the President or Congress should be able to decide whether the United States should attack another country.
Under the United Nations charter, a treaty which the United States has ratified, the only two justifications a nation may use for using force on another country’s soil without that nation’s consent are if the Security Council granted permission – which did not occur in relation to this strike – or in a case of self-defense. Regarding the latter, if the Defense Department had authorized the strike as a means of deterring the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons in the future; that reason could not be classified as self-defense.
Furthermore, the question of whether or not Trump had the domestic legal authority to attack Syria is also murky. Legal experts generally agree that our founders intended Congress to make decisions about whether to wage war. In practice, however, many presidents of both parties have engaged in military operations without gaining specific authorization from Congress. In recent decades, many experts on the operations of the executive branch have asserted that the president, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, may make the decision to use military force unilaterally so long as he decides that the strike would be in the national interest. If that criteria were used, did President Trump have a legitimate claim based on our national interest?
Trump has previously stated, “It is vital to the national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” However, there are many who point out the questionable legality of Trump’s decisions, as well as its impulsivity. There are others though, who agree but support the end result of the administration’s decision, based on the horror of chemical weapon attacks on civilians. It’s true that many of Trump’s policies, as well as his overall aptitude as president, are suspect, not to mention the fact that his credibility is hazy. Also, Trump’s decision was a sudden and complete shift from previous policy, made after the president reportedly had seen photos of children gassed by Sarin in Syria. Is it logical and right for a president to make decisions pertaining to war based only on his conviction gained from some photos?
Ultimately, this issue has so many facets and sides that it is difficult to pinpoint whether or not Trump’s decision was legally justified, the question also arises as to whether this decision will serve only to escalate the conflict and lead to more civilian deaths.