Introduction to Syria and War Powers

This is the first in a series of articles covering the United States' recent bombing of a Syrian military airbase. This article provides a quick overview of Friday's events and the questions we'll be exploring throughout the weekend.


Brian Andrew Smith is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a regular correspondent for The Body Politic.

Becoming President tends to change politicians’ opinions about how to use force: George W. Bush campaigned on a heavily domestic platform that rejected the kind of military-led humanitarian action that marked the Clinton years, yet as President he was an active proponent of eliminating hostile regimes. Candidate Barack Obama promised a systematic move away from the use of force, yet he is likely to be remembered in military history as the President that firmly established targeted killing as a permanent tool of U.S. statecraft. As a candidate for President, Donald Trump made the case that while the tragedy in Syria is largely of our making, he would not take it upon himself to challenge the Assad regime. Assad’s use of sarin—particularly horrific nerve gas—against civilians changed this.

Having so much power and authority to act independently, the President of the United States faces enormous pressure to act immediately when crises present themselves. This is true in every area of our political life, but our current political climate, the laws governing how our country uses force and the practical realities of governing makes the presidential authority in military affairs near-absolute in the hours following a crisis.

The last sixteen years have seen a dramatic expansion of presidential war powers. Officially, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 offers a bulwark against hasty commitment of American forces. According to the resolution, the president must notify Congress of any U.S. military action within 48 hours, and requires explicit congressional authorization for actions longer than sixty days. In practice, it creates a situation where Congress is always reacting to presidential decisions after the fact. The blanket Authorization of Military Force against the perpetrators of 9/11 has muddied the waters even further by affording the executive branch an ongoing justification for individual, one-time uses of force around the world.

Many will debate whether there is direct precedent for the U.S. to respond to an attack by a foreign government on its own civilians. Given the sheer scope of U.S. activity worldwide, it is hard to imagine that from time to time U.S. forces have not quietly engaged in uses of force to protect civilians. Yesterday’s response in Syria probably deserves some credit for its proportionality: Because it was launched overnight, it killed very few people. Moreover, unlike some other acts of U.S. retaliation, it was a direct attack on the very airfield from which Assad’s chemical weapons attack originated.

The administration has stated that this was a one-time response to a particular act. Strategically, it’s meant to deter Syria from taking similar actions in the future. Russia has predictably moved to publicly support Syria. The status quo will probably remain; the ongoing moral challenge of Syria remains. 

As a matter of how the citizens of a republic ought to think about this kind of power, however, this poses another challenge. In the name of safety and security, we have generally granted each new president ever-increasing powers in matters of war. (Check back Saturday morning for another article touching on how and why that process happened.) It may well be that a swift response to Assad’s murder of Syrian citizens was in order, and there may be other situations in the future where military actions demand this kind of speed and secrecy. But the fact that a president--any president--need only say the word and inflict violence ought to give most people pause, and encourage us to think about the role we want Congress and our congressional representatives to play in these matters in the future, balancing national security with their duty to be heard.