His presidency in crisis, Trump orders a strike on Syria

President Donald Trump speaks Friday night at the White House to announces a military strike in response to Syria’s suspected chemical weapons attack on April 7.
President Donald Trump speaks Friday night at the White House to announces a military strike in response to Syria’s suspected chemical weapons attack on April 7. AP

For a second time, President Donald Trump ordered a limited military strike to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, and to deter further atrocities.

It didn’t happen after the first strike in April 2017, but it must this time – Trump must go to Congress with an actual strategy to end Syria’s seven-year civil war, and Congress must pass a new authorization for military action in the Middle East.

California lawmakers – including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce of Orange County – must be assertive.

In the attack Friday night, Britain and France joined U.S. forces to hit three targets instead of last year’s one and with 105 missiles, nearly double the number last year. A multilateral military action to enforce a United Nations resolution is far more defensible under international law.

Still, it’s riskier this time. Russia is deeply tied to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and there’s more danger of retaliation and a wider war that the American public has absolutely no interest in waging. Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the attack “an act of aggression.” While Russia has pledged to ensure the Assad regime dismantles its chemical weapons program, it has accused Britain of staging the suspected chemical attack on April 7 in a Damascus suburb that killed more than 40 civilians.

And the timing of the strike is far more suspicious. Trump’s presidency is in crisis. As the missiles were launched Friday night, he was raging against former FBI Director James Comey, whose unflattering portrayal of Trump in a new memoir has him seething, and wrestling with a federal criminal investigation of his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, which could be more threatening than even special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

Invoking “Wag the Dog” is probably taking it too far; this crisis wasn’t completely manufactured. Defense Secretary James Mattis gave Trump some cover by telling reporters that the confirmation of the use of chlorine didn’t come until Thursday.

Still, Americans’ doubts are justified – and that’s Trump’s fault. When a president lies routinely, in big and small ways, he forfeits the nation’s full trust, even among those who may agree with him.

In his nationally televised speech Friday night, Trump told Americans that the U.S. had to respond. “The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air,” he said. “These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead.”

The use of chemical weapons is an atrocity. But Trump’s concern for the Syrian people would be far more believable if he hadn’t banned nearly all Syrian refugees from coming to America.

Key Democrats and Republicans alike are calling on Trump to lay out a more comprehensive strategy. That’s extremely difficult when he changes his mind daily. As recently as April 3, he said he wanted to bring home the 2,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

With such an unstable and inconsistent commander-in-chief, it’s even more important for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority to declare war, and for Republican leaders to find their backbone.

Trump acted Friday under a war authorization passed by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. An entire new generation of U.S. troops is deployed now in Afghanistan as well as Syria. It’s way past time for lawmakers to pass a new authorization for military action against terrorist groups; later this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to begin debate on a new one.

The Pentagon reported Saturday that it destroyed “the heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons program, but conceded it could still launch more chemical attacks. Trump, being Trump, took to Twitter to crow “Mission Accomplished!”

If he had any appreciation of history, he would know that no U.S. president should ever say that about any war in the Middle East.