Oh my gosh, my liberal and libertarian friends are all freaking out over a few dozen cruise missiles. I have a different take on this. Launching an air strike was a good move by the Trump administration, though I do have one nitpick that reveals an ongoing weakness in the decision making.
Here’s some of the things I’m hearing people saying (none of which are direct quotes):
This is unconstitutional!
I’m going to stay out of legal arguments that I do not have the education to make convincingly. Try this debate between law and policy experts if you want to get in the weeds; in the end, the audience voted that Obama’s various strikes were not unconstitutional.
The president should not use military force without authorization, as a policy matter.
I constructed this weakened straw-man to get away from the legal issues of whether or not this is constitutional. Should the president have to consult Congress for every military action? I see war as yet another imperfect tool of foreign policy, with its own advantages and disadvantages. The constitution grants the president the powers to meet with foreign dignitaries and ambassadors. They have a cabinet official and government agency (the State Department) devoted to managing foreign affairs. Federal law has delegated many other powers to the president to manage foreign relations, such as imposing sanctions and penalizing trade. If the president did not have at least some authority to independently exercise the use of the military when all other diplomatic tools at their disposal failed, the US would be a weak, impotent player on the world stage. This is precisely what happened when Obama went to Congress to get authorization to attack Syria after they used chemical weapons the first time.
American intervention will only make things worse.
On the contrary, I believe that the lack of American intervention over the past few years has made things worse. I, like Trump, was against intervention in Syria initially. I changed my mind when I saw the results of that decision years ago: an ongoing civil war being propped up by Russia instead of the US. When we cede our position as global superpower, it allows our enemies to expand their influence. The United States may not have a clean humanitarian record, but I trust us to protect freedom and democracy around the world far more than I trust Russia and China to do so.
I of course have no evidence for this, but I can’t help but wonder if this was a way for Putin to test Trump. Trump has been touting a non-interventionist “America First” foreign policy for a while. When Trump says that, countries like Russia, China, and Iran hear that they can do whatever they want without the US getting involved anymore. What better way to find out if Trump meant it than by having an ally (so Russia has deniability) take an action like one the US responded to in the past? If we had responded more weakly than before, Putin would know just how much expanded power he now has. Perhaps he could get away with annexing the rest of Ukraine. After that, maybe he could threaten an eastern European member of NATO and see how we react. Appeasement only leads to escalation. If Trump’s critics want to blame him for his share of earlier appeasement, that’s fair. If this was a test, though, Trump aced it.
The One Mistake: China
The Washington Post has an excellent piece this morning on how China might feel about the strike. Xi Jinping is currently in Mar-A-Lago meeting with Trump, and the optics of the situation are not good. I think this is yet another way the White House’s neutering of the State Department is leading to diplomatic ramifications, as they would have been the ones to raise this objection before any decision was made. Trump is listening to the generals, not the diplomats. Note that we don’t even have an ambassador to China yet!
Perhaps a better route would have been to demand action through the UN Security Council. Russia would of course veto this, and perhaps China too (not as strongly as they will object now). After that, the US could have unilaterally launched a strike to show that, while we are willing to try to cooperate, we will not let these other countries boss us around. I just hope that this option was not completely overlooked because key people were not at the table.