Ken’s Take on the World

Tomahawks and Trump

A few days ago, President Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles to strike an air base in Syria.  Ostensibly, this was a response to the use of chemical weapons against the civilian populace.  Responses from critics and supporters have been mostly predictable.  Unfortunately, these responses miss crucial points.


The Constitutional conundrum:  Critics of the President’s actions point out that he lacks the Constitutional authority to initiate military actions without Congressional approval.  Article I, Section 8 clearly defines the role of Congress in declaring war.  Article II, Section 2, however, vests the authority of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces with the President.  Congress passed the War Powers Act (WPA) to permit a President to initiate military action to immediately protect “vital national interests.”  Since its inception, every President has used this as a justification for carrying out military actions.  President Trump is no different than Presidents Carter, Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush, or Obama in claiming their actions are covered under this provision.  While it may be worthwhile to debate the legal merits of Trump’s justification, it is unlikely (particularly with a Republican Congress) that anything significant will come of this in the form of restricting legislation on a President’s authority under the WPA.  It is inconceivable the President acted against an imminent threat to crucial national interests that prevented him from seeking approval from Congress, as his predecessor did in 2013.  While Republicans in Congress rebuffed President Obama’s request for authorization of military force when President Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens then, it is not clear how Congress would respond to a similar request made by the current President.


Moral maladaption:  Republican talking heads claim the President, even if lacking legal justification for launching an attack on Syrian territory, had a moral imperative to take action against the use of chemical weapons.  The President, himself, states that he was moved by the images of small children killed by the heinous use of such banned weapons.  I do not doubt that he, like the rest of us, was indeed moved by the horrific imagery of babies, children, women, and men suffering the effects of what appears to be the nerve agent, Sarin.  To suggest President Trump was not touched by these images is unfair to him.  We actually expect our President to act as a moral leader, promoting our values as a civilized nation.  A moral leader, however, would likely have sought the support of our allies in formulating a strong and clear message of condemnation on the use of chemical weapons rather than appearing to act impulsively, and alone, in carrying out an act of war that violates international norms.  There is an argument to be made that it is actually immoral for the President to order the launch of military actions that could lead to civilian casualties.  There is plenty of history of the United States, accidentally, or intentionally, launching military strikes that led to the deaths of many more women, babies, and children than the recent chemical attacks have caused.  A stronger counterargument to his supporters suggesting that Trump had a moral obligation to act would be to note that President Trump has repeatedly attempted to block all refugees from Syria entering the United States.  Perhaps, his rationale for striking the air base in Syria would ring less hollow had his ongoing efforts pertaining to the Syrian people not been construed as hostile to them and ambivalent toward the Syrian dictator.


Pocketbook penumbra:  To those who have suggested the President authorized use of Tomahawk missiles because he owns stock in Raytheon, the manufacturer, just stop!!  Of all the reasons one might consider for why the President selected this option, this is not going to be one of them.  While I have stated on multiple occasions that Donald Trump acts only in the interest of Donald Trump, even this claim is ridiculous to me.  Now, I will state that I am disappointed, make that disgusted, that with nearly $90 million in military weaponry launched into Syria the other day we did not even negatively impact the capabilities of the Syrian government to continue its air campaign against rebels for even a single day.  It is unclear whether we even sent an effective message deterring the regime from future use of chemical weapons in these strikes.


Donald’s doubletalk:  We know the current President changes his positions constantly.  We know that he lies and misleads.  In 2013, Donald Trump strongly opposed any military action in Syria.  He demanded then-President Obama seek approval from Congress prior to undertaking ANY military action in Syria even after it was confirmed the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against the Syrian people.  Why, then, would President Trump launch military strikes in Syria without prior notification of, and approval from, Congress.  President Obama actually DID seek approval from Congress to take action against Syria.  What, from a legal perspective, has changed in the interim?  Nothing.  To those who suggest these actions made him appear “Presidential,” need I remind you of comments made regarding the President’s State of the Union Address in February?  Within 36 hours, he had demonstrated that he had not made the “Presidential Pivot” that people on both sides of the political spectrum have implored him to make since gaining the nomination last July.


Donald’s distractions:  The Trump Administration has been an epic lesson in incompetence, confusion, unethical behavior, obfuscation, and, perhaps, worse.  From a series of gaffes involving our allies, his inability to articulate a clear strategy on any policy position, allegations of collusion with an adversarial government, basement-level poll numbers, and infighting within his inner circle of advisors, it has been suggested the President, perhaps, sought a distraction that might cast him in a more favorable light.  If this is the case, it is reprehensible and inexcusable.  A more benign reason for ordering military strikes in the manner he did is the lack of competent advice from advisors who lack the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience to more carefully coordinate these strikes to produce greater effect and reduce potential negative consequences.  This, too, is unacceptable.  This failure in competence has led to a lack of support from our allies and jeopardized the safety of US service members, particularly in the Syrian theater of operations where we are currently active.  Despite prior notification of the Russian government which minimized damage to Russian military assets at the airbase, the missile strikes have led to amped-up rhetoric from Russia including statements that Russia will no longer advise US military officials regarding military operations which may lead to inadvertent US military casualties at the hands of Russian military munitions.


The current President has positioned the United States on a very dangerous path with his reckless missile strikes on Syria.  The strikes appear to be merely symbolic and provided no tactical or strategic gains for the US.  They did not hamper Assad’s abilities to carry out attacks, including chemical weapons attacks, on his people.  They pushed Russia into a potentially stronger alliance with the Assad regime.  His disregard for the Constitution continues his trend of undermining our institutions of democracy.  Along with his increased use of military action, including drone strikes, that have led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the Middle East, he diminishes the safety of deployed US forces and the security of US citizens throughout the world.  A US Administration has traditionally been a stabilizing feature of the global community.  Under President Trump, this is no longer the case.  The President, and his Administration (with certain exceptions) have injected a level of uncertainty and instability that is not only foolish but is also extremely dangerous.


An Ethical Basis for Use of Military Force in Syria

In light of the increasing evidence that chemical weapons were used against civilian targets in Syria, there has been great debate about what role the United States, if any, should play in addressing this serious transgression.  Popular sentiment has been against any military intervention in what is widely believed to be a civil war.  It is difficult to fathom that such a weighty decision as to the use of force would be achieved using purely emotional means.  However, the use of pure logic is also flawed in this instance because of the complexity of using military force is itself fraught with many potential complications.  Limiting this discussion to the events currently unfolding in Syria, we should look at the use, or non-use of military force using an ethical approach.


Ethical decision-making requires us to identify and weigh applicable values and attempt to reach a moral conclusion.  It requires that we seek to recognize right and wrong and act appropriately.  Values that must be assessed using this approach include: autonomy, power, paternalism, protection, liberty, technology, safety, justice, economy, efficiency, integrity, diplomacy, humanity, and security.


As a nation, we are committed to the belief that every nation has an inherent right to determine its own future among nations.  Americans would not tolerate a foreign entity interfering in our course of affairs.  Likewise, the community of nations does not take kindly to one nation, or nations, attempting to determine the future course of another.  This is the principle of autonomy—each nation determines its own destiny.


The United States has the most technologically-advanced and committed military force in the world.  It has been an all-volunteer force for decades which provides for a level of commitment not seen with forced conscription.  Advanced weapons platforms and systems that can deliver the might of a nation are attached to a tremendous responsibility to use restraint in the use of such weapons.  America has the capabilities of striking targets using a broader variety of weapons than any other nation.  As a result, the responsibility for judicious use of its military forces is greater than for other nations.  The simple idea that because you have power that it can be used without restraint or consequences, good or bad, is irresponsible and dangerous.  The use of force should only be undertaken after careful and serious deliberation. Power is also held by the President and by Congress.  Both have authority over military action granted by the US Constitution as will be discussed later.


There are those who suggest that the United States, as the most powerful Superpower state, has an obligation to use its military forces for the good of the world.  I will admit, that, as a Veteran, I do believe that our nation’s armed forces are well-equipped and well-prepared to handle most challenges that face the interests of America, and indeed, the world.  However, I, along with a majority of people, do not like the idea of the United States serving in the role of international police officer.  I do believe the US has an obligation to stand up for the oppressed and that there are numerous occasions in which we, as a nation, have failed to do so.  Or, we acted too slowly to avert human catastrophe.  The United States is uniquely qualified to intervene anywhere there is violent oppression of a people to prevent genocide.  This does not mean that we, as a nation, should commit military force to every conflict that involves the death of civilians at the hands of a brutal regime.  Having the ability to do so does not provide a moral obligation to do so.  It could be argued that there are some actions that are so heinous that they require a swift and devastating response in order to deter future atrocities, protect others, or to punish the perpetrators.


Our American sense of values cherishes the concept and the promotion of individual liberty.  Personal freedom is, quite possibly, the single-most important value that we hold to be true.  Our sensibilities cannot accept when any person is oppressed whether they be American or foreign.  Liberty differs from Rights in that Rights require another person to acquiesce in order for the Right to be upheld.  Liberty, or freedom, does not require another person to sacrifice anything for the enjoyment of another.  In the United States, for example, we have a limited right to free speech.  On the other hand, you are free to inhale as much air as you desire. Of course, this is very simplistic, but you get the idea.  Liberty is, in essence, a more compelling argument both in favor of, and in opposition to, the use of military force.  We believe that citizens should have the right to select their own leaders in an orderly fashion even though this is not the primary form of government in each nation.  We frown on Heads of State using force to brutally suppress protest.  We believe that they are denying Rights that most Americans take for granted.  Because the Rights afforded under each nation’s laws may vary, it is difficult for citizens of one nation to comprehend how another nation could not establish certain things as Rights.  Our American sense of justness requires that the victims of crimes against humanity must be afforded redress and that perpetrators of such atrocities must be punished for their actions


Any intervention, diplomatic or military, comes with an economic cost.  A frank discussion should occur that will lay out the economic factors helped, or hindered, under various scenarios.  This discussion cannot look only at the immediate economic costs associated with intervention or non-intervention.  We must recognize that the United States is part of a global economy and that our economic interests in the nations that neighbor Syria will be impacted by actions, or inactions, the US participates in.  Economists can drill down and identify the actual economic costs of any given plan of action.  It is more difficult to estimate the economic costs associated with taking no action or over a longer time.  For example, we know the cost of an aircraft or a missile today if it was used as part of a strike on targets.  If such action is not taken today, there is an immediate savings, however, if such a strike is ordered in a year or two, would it become more expensive or less expensive?  There are many other economic factors to consider including loss of economic output from targets like factories that could be destroyed, loss of productivity of workers, cost of medical care to injured personnel and civilians, re-construction costs, etc.


Any conversation that contemplates the use of military force must be conducted with integrity, honesty and transparency.  The United States was founded as a Constitutional Republic in which the people elect representatives to serve our individual and communal interests.  These elected leaders must have the opportunity to review all available materials prior to making a decision on such a momentous action.  Our Senators and Representatives in the House have an obligation to thoroughly vet this information before they make a decision.  There are many who may disagree, but it is not as important for the average American to have access to all information, however, no elected official should be denied access to any information.  It is not the job of the Executive or Senior Leaders in Congress to determine what information is relevant or not regarding deploying military forces.  Our elected legislators have a duty to not compromise sensitive information, but to honestly and thoroughly assess information, and to communicate their rationale with the voters to provide sufficient transparency to the American people when they wish to support sending our troops into harm’s way.  Polling of the public should have limited impact on elected officials decision-making on this most-serious of considerations.  Congress, in their deliberations on Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria must make the following determinations based on evidence: a) Chemical weapons were very likely used against civilian targets in Syria; b) The use of such weapons were very likely ordered, supplied, or deployed by Syrian government forces or supporters of the Syrian government in order to have an ethical justification for the use of military action.  The use of chemical munitions is a violation of international law in which the United States is a signatory.  If Congress determines that chemical weapons were used against civilian targets but cannot determine if the Syrian government authorized, or furnished such munitions for use, there is a much weaker ethical justification for military action.


Efficiency must be considered as a broader discussion regarding economy and efficacy of undertaking a particular course of action.  The United States, as strong and powerful as the nation is, still possesses finite resources.  When there is consideration of military force, it is important to consider that the man or woman wearing a uniform of the Armed Forces is the most valuable asset that the nation possesses.  While missiles, tanks and other weaponry may be more expensive, there is no value that can be placed on the life of a soldier, sailor, Marine, or airman lost in combat actions.  Economists can model this cost, but the emotional toll on loved ones left behind is impossible to figure.  In order for an action to be considered efficient, it must be determined to be cost-effective, time-constrained, and goal-oriented.  Goals must be measurable.


As a nation, the use of diplomacy has always been a mainstay of our international relations.  It is generally considered that great diplomacy is backed by a sufficiently strong military force.  The carrot and the stick approach to difficult topics that arise between nations.  Diplomacy can, and should be, used to address regional crisis.  In many cases, conversations with individuals who possess sufficient authority to implement change can lead to successful outcomes.  This approach serves to protect American servicemen and women and is, therefore, a more cost-effective approach in dealing with irresponsible or despotic leaders.  Diplomacy does require the active participation of all members to the conversation.  Without active engagement, diplomacy cannot be successful.  Diplomacy can be complimented with the use of economic sanctions.


 Security is a paramount concern for every person.  We task our nation’s leaders with establishing a military force capable of addressing any threat to our national interests.  This task has been quite adeptly met with our supremely qualified military forces.  Defining our national interests is more of a challenge.  Much of the current debate includes references to the Congressional authority, established in Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution to declare War and to the President’s authority under Article II, Section 2 as Commander-in-Chief of US Armed Forces.  Lost in the current dialogue is another provision under Section 8 that grants authority to Congress, “to define and punish…Offenses against the Law of Nations.”  Both Sections explicitly, and as interpreted by the Courts, have relevance and implications in the current discourse regarding Syria.  Throughout our nation’s history, the terms national interests, vital interests, and security interests have been tied together or interpreted more loosely to justify the use of military force mostly as a matter of political convenience.  While legislators in Congress have tended to seek a compelling national security interest prior to authorizing the use of Armed Forces, President’s have often been satisfied with claiming a general national interest when initiating the use of military action.  There has not been a formal Declaration of War made by Congress since 1941.  Eighteen times since then Congress has provided an authorization for the President to use military action.  President Obama has approached Congress a seeking its 19th Authorization of Use of Military Force.  History shows that Congress has been consistent in its approval of an AUMF.  This should not imply that Senators and Representatives simply defer to the President on such crucial decisions, but it is incumbent on both the Congress and President to act responsibly in order to ensure that this process is carried out with integrity and scrutiny.


I believe that the use of chemical weapons is an outrage that cannot be tolerated.  The use of such weapons against civilian populations is an abomination that demands action.  Multiple factors must be considered.


1.  Were chemical weapons, in fact, used?

2.  Were chemical weapons authorized, and/or used, by Syrian government forces?

3.  Has diplomatic action been attempted?

4.  Is diplomatic action likely to be unsuccessful?

5.  Is a multi-lateral military action feasible?

6.  Is there a threat against national security interests?

7.  Is there a threat against national economic interests?

8.  Is there a threat against regional allied nations or neutral nations?

9.  Is it less likely that further use of chemical weapons will occur without a military response?

10.  Is it less likely that further use of chemical weapons will occur with a military response?

11.  Are future US diplomatic efforts undermined with a military response?

12.  Are future US diplomatic efforts supported with a military response?

13.  Are regional nations at greater risk if the US conducts a military action?

14.  Are regional nations at greater risk if the US does not conduct a military action?

15.  Is there a risk of chemical weapons falling into the hands of non-governmental forces?

16.  What are the tactical goals of military action?

17.  What are the strategic goals of military action?


If the President is able to present sufficient proof to Congress that the Syrian government employed chemical weapons against civilian targets, this information should force consideration that if the government would target its own citizens, there is no rational basis for thinking the government would not be willing to use similar weapons against outside targets.  If, it is likely chemical weapons were obtained and used by rebel forces, it is critical for the United States to determine the origin of such weapons.  This would indicate a far-deeper problem than the Assad government using chemical munitions.


Diplomatic intervention has already been attempted and proven to be unsuccessful.  Economic sanctions are ineffective because Syria’s strongest regional allies in the region are Russia and Iran with whom the United States has strained or non-existent diplomatic relations.  The use of chemical weapons violates International Law which falls under the purview of Congress.  I do not believe it is less likely that a failure of the United States to take action, in light of documented proof of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, the Assad regime, or other nations, would hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction in the future.


I believe a failure to act on the part of the United States would serve to embolden other pariah nations who have been kept in check by the ever-present threat of a US response to conduct that threatens international norms.  If the evidence proves the use of chemical weapons AND if the evidence proves that it was the Syrian government who ordered or deployed these weapons, the United States has no ethical option but to act.