Contrary to the way it has been framed, the Trump administration’s bombing of a Syrian military base has virtually nothing to do with humanitarian relief. Hurling 50 Tomahawk missiles at a single military base does not fundamentally undermine the Assad regime’s ability to harm its own people, and it has zero chance of altering the military and political realities on the ground. It is merely a symbolic gesture intended to deter further use of chemical weapons.
The problem with this rationale, from a humanitarian perspective, is that by last week the Assad regime had killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians with conventional weapons. On Tuesday, it reportedly killed about 75 people with chemical weapons. If saving Syrians from regime violence is the justification, this is a wholly irrational way to go about doing it.
There is no indication, as of yet, that the Trump administration is even operating under the premise that it needs legal authorization. Trump did not inform Congress of this elective bombing mission, much less ask for authorization, as the Constitution requires. Some members of Congress, including Sens. Tim Kaine, Rand Paul, and Ben Cardin, have made somewhat hollow demands that Trump seek congressional approval and legal authorization. Others, such as Sen. John McCain, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, seem all too eager to embrace the fiction that the president has the legal right to use military force at his own whim.
Furthermore, as Harvard law professor and former legal counsel to the George W. Bush administration Jack Goldsmith wrote in 2013, when it looked like President Obama was on the cusp of ordering a similar strike against Assad, international law prohibits the use of force without UN Security Council approval, unless in self-defense. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, but so is bombing another country in violation of the UN Charter.
Put simply, Trump’s decision to attack the Syrian regime has no legal authority and little chance of actually mitigating the suffering of Syrians caught in the civil war. In fact, there is no U.S. military solution to the Syrian conflict. The options that do exist risk exacerbating regional insecurity and humanitarian strife and would require a massive commitment in blood and treasure that the American people seem unprepared to tolerate.
The key now is to see whether Trump will be able to resist the temptation to escalate and avoid the kind of mission creep that has sucked the United States into hopeless Middle East quagmires in the past. Trump administration officials have already begun to imply that removing Assad is an evolving administration goal now. And Trump’s own party is already lobbying for expanding the mission to regime change. Sen. Marco Rubio has called on the administration to increase support for rebels and coordinate with regional Sunni allies “to create alternatives to the Assad regime.”
A more paradigmatic example of mission creep would be hard to invent. If Washington does pursue regime change, it will pit the United States against Syria’s two main allies, Iran and Russia, and create a power vacuum in Syria that jihadist groups are best positioned to fill. In other words, every plausible near-term consequence of regime change would have catastrophic implications for U.S. security and regional stability.
Donald Trump has been president for only 77 days, and he has already violated repeated campaign pledges to avoid wars of choice in the Middle East and, specifically, to stay out of the Syrian civil war. The American people should take note that Trump governs as he tweets: irrationally, inconsistently, and without concern for the likely adverse consequences.
John Glaser is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.