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Trump’s Illegal War in Syria

Our political culture's abject deference to presidential power on matters of war makes it easy for presidents to get away with these things.
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Paul Pillar comments on the Trump administration’s outrageous plan to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely:

The Trump administration is having U.S. troops participate indefinitely in someone else’s civil war, for reasons that are quite different from the original stated objective of helping to quash the so-called caliphate of the Islamic State (ISIS). The new reasons do not stand up to scrutiny in terms of defending any threatened U.S. interests. The administration has in effect made a decision to immerse the United States in yet another foreign war.

Keeping U.S. forces in Syria is illegal and unnecessary, as I said last week. Preventing the Syrian government from reestablishing control over its own territory has nothing to do with American security, and there are still no vital American interests at stake in Syria. Putting U.S. forces in harm’s way to stop Iran from having influence in the territory of its own ally is as senseless a waste of American resources and manpower as one can imagine, but that is what we have come to expect from an administration irrationally fixated on harming Iran at the expense of everything else.

The unauthorized, open-ended commitment in Syria is also a good example of how easily presidents can perpetuate and expand U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts with only minimal resistance at home. There are some vocal critics of the plan for this very reason:

Sen. Murphy is right to object, but I fear that illegal presidential wars have become common enough over the last decade that it won’t even occur to most of Trump’s opponents to question the legality of what he’s doing here. The Libyan war, the war on ISIS, and U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen were all similarly unauthorized, but Obama was able to “get away” with all of these for years because most of his domestic opponents didn’t care and most in his own party weren’t willing to criticize him. Our political culture’s abject deference to presidential power on matters of war makes it easy for presidents to get away with these things. When Trump ordered an attack on Syrian government forces last year, he had absolutely no authority to do that and was in direction violation of the U.N. Charter and the Constitution, but instead of being condemned for his flagrantly illegal action he was celebrated and praised for his “leadership.”

More members of Congress could challenge Trump over the illegality of the ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria, but most of them seem content to abdicate all responsibility for these matters in order to minimize their exposure when something goes wrong later. Americans have been conditioned by the last sixteen years of unending war and decades of the cult of the presidency to shrug when the president commits the U.S. to another open-ended military mission in a foreign country that has nothing to do with our security or self-defense. Perhaps now that Trump is the one doing it there will be a stronger reaction. I hope there is, but I wouldn’t bet on it.



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