(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s decision to strike Syrian chemical sites left U.S. lawmakers in a familiar position: bystanders to American military involvement in a conflict zone.
The possibility that the U.S. may become more deeply engaged in Syria’s seven-year civil war is reviving a long-standing and unsettled debate over Congress’s role in authorizing the use of military force.
Three successive presidential administrations have relied on a 2001 congressional authorization, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, to strike at terrorists and other adversaries well beyond the base of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
In the wake of the missile strikes in Syria, carried out in conjunction with U.K. and French forces, a number of Democratic lawmakers twinned denunciations of Bashar al-Assad’s regime with complaints that Trump acted without seeking proper authority from Congress.
“The lack of legal authorization for these strikes, much like those in 2017, is the fault of not only this administration, but also past administrations and a Congress that willingly abdicated its role in approving or disproving military action,” Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
Most Republicans backed the president without reservations. But California Republican Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, also said the administration also must explain its strategy for the months ahead.
“Military force cannot be the only means of responding to these atrocities,” he said in a statement. Royce said his committee would convene a hearing next week on U.S. policy in the region.
The most recent effort to update the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, in 2015, stalled in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At that time, Republicans sought a broad and open-ended authorization to prod President Barack Obama, a Democrat, into more aggressive military operations against terrorists in many locations. Democratic lawmakers wanted to limit the geographic reach and duration of any measure.
“Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria without Congress’s approval is illegal,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and a member of the foreign relations panel, said Saturday on Twitter. “We need to stop giving presidents a blank check to wage war.”
Kaine contrasted the president’s latest action to a tweet Trump, at the time a reality television star and real estate developer, sent in 2013: “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria -- big mistake if he does not!”
Kaine said he and Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, were working to draft a proposal that would put “more constraints on the when, where and who we are fighting against.”
Corker said there’s no guarantee the latest effort to update the war authorization will be any easier than the last one. “The first step is to get it out of committee, which is going to be a heavy effort,” he said. “The administration is not particularly interested in it.”
In testimony on Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. had “the authority to deal with” Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians to “stop the murder of innocent people.”
He also argued that a strike would, at least theoretically, be in defense of the 2,000 U.S. troops that are in Syria with a mission to defeat what remains of Islamic State.
“The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something that we should assume, ‘Well, because he didn’t use them on us this time, he wouldn’t use them on us next time,” Mattis said of Assad.
Many Democrats said they were concerned that action in Syria risks a wider conflict, and that means Congress must be consulted.
“I’m deeply concerned that President Trump continues to conduct military operations without any comprehensive strategy or the necessary congressional authorization,” Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said in a statement Friday.
In his testimony on Thursday, Mattis said any new resolution should take into account the fluid nature of terrorist organizations, that they could move across borders with impunity, and that changing some legal justifications could expose the government to risk.
“I can show you where al-Qaeda becomes al- Qaeda in Iraq, that becomes ISIS. I can show a continued thread all the way through,” Mattis said, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Royce said the president “is justified to take limited action in coordination with our allies to hold Assad accountable for the use of chemical weapons.” But, he added, “The U.S. must leverage strong diplomacy and serious financial pressure.”
At least one Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said Trump hadn’t gone far enough, and that the U.S. had settled on being “the chemical weapons police.”
“When the dust settles, this strike will be seen as a weak military response and Assad will have paid a small price for using chemical weapons yet again,” Graham, a member of the Armed Forces Committee, said in a statement.
“Assad has likely calculated a limited American strike is just the cost of doing business. Russia and Iran will view the limited action as the United States being content to drop a few bombs before heading for the exits.”
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