How a Senate Debate Is Hurting U.S. Policy in the Mideast
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As Congress wraps up this week, it’s worth paying attention to David Schenker. His is a name few Americans know, but he is the victim of an important fight about the president’s war powers.
Nominated last spring to be assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, Schenker enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate. But Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, is holding Schenker’s nomination in a bid to get President Donald Trump to turn over the legal memo that authorized U.S. air strikes on a Syrian airbase in April 2017.
“Despite repeated requests since April of 2017, the Trump administration has refused to show us its legal justification for bombing Syria,” Kaine told me. He is worried that Trump may have no legal justification for those strikes. “President Trump and his administration owe it to the American people to be honest about the wars our troops are fighting, and I’m going to hold them accountable until they’ve released this secret memo.”
Kaine raises a fair point. Since Congress authorized the war on terror 17 years ago, three presidents have used a 2001 resolution, which was was supposed to apply to the planners and organizers of the Sept. 11 attacks, to wage a progressively broader war throughout the Muslim world. George W. Bush said the authorization allowed him to target jihadists in Pakistan and Africa. Barack Obama used it to justify strikes against the Islamic State, which had broken away from al Qaeda and was fighting its affiliates when the U.S. entered hostilities in 2014.
If Trump’s lawyers are arguing that the 2001 authorization covered air strikes against the air base from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a chemical weapons attack in 2017, that would be stretching its meaning even further.
That said, Democrats have also rightly criticized the Trump administration for failing to nominate qualified people to key positions — in the government in general, and the State Department in particular.
The Trump administration in this respect was in a difficult position. Many of the brightest foreign policy hands on the right had signed a letter in 2016 pledging never to work for Trump if he won. This left the president with a smaller than normal pool for a Republican president to draw from.
All of which brings us back to David Schenker. A fluent Arabic speaker and former Pentagon official, Schenker has earned respect from the foreign policy establishment from his perch at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs. That’s one reason Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted him. Even Kaine has told colleagues that his hold is about the legal justification for the Syria strikes, not about Schenker’s qualifications for the job.
This is why it’s in both the White House and Kaine’s interest to try to reach a compromise in the next few days. Senate sources tell me that Pompeo has lobbied for the White House general counsel’s office to at least brief Kaine on the legal justification for air strikes on Syria. Late last month, Kaine had a brief conversation with White House lawyer Emmet Flood.
It’s crucial that the two sides come to an agreement. It would be a pity if a senator’s legitimate concerns about the U.S. role in Syria ended up depriving the State Department of a man highly qualified to manage U.S. foreign policy there.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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