By Sabrina Siddiqui and Lauren Gambino. Published in The Guardian.
Donald Trump’s decision to launch US military strikes in Syria without congressional approval has raised questions about the legality of the administration’s actions.
The president’s retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons earlier this week was largely met with bipartisan support in Washington. But US lawmakers and legal experts were split over whether the strikes authorized by Trump were constitutional.
However, mostly everyone agreed: it’s complicated.
What does US law state?
The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was designed to serve as a check on the president, requiring the commander-in-chief to consult Congress when dispatching US combat troops into an armed conflict. But it enables the president to act unilaterally in the event of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces”, which has been broadly interpreted by recent administrations while approaching international crises.
The Trump administration has been quick to point to its notification of congressional leaders in both parties, as well as certain members on the relevant committees, ahead of the president’s action on Thursday. The White House has also framed the legality of the strikes as a matter of national security and protecting against the potential threat to US forces in the region.
In 2011, the Obama administration argued its bombing campaign in Libya was within the president’s legal authority as its intent was aimed at “preserving regional stability and supporting the [United Nation Security Council’s] credibility and effectiveness”.
So what role does Congress play?
Under the US constitution, the president cannot declare war absent congressional approval. But recent administrations, through the use of drone strikes and so-called special operators (as opposed to ground troops), have created a decidedly lax interpretation of military involvement.
When Barack Obama was seeking to respond to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, he asked Congress to authorize the use of military force through what is known as an AUMF (authorization for use of military force). But the president notably underscored that he did not require congressional approval to take limited military action, contending instead he deemed it the appropriate thing to do.
Congress did not ultimately hold a vote on a new AUMF, with many Republicans in particular taking a stance against doing so under Obama. Some argued the president had the authority to act unilaterally, seemingly not wanting to incur the political risk that has accompanied military conflict since Congress voted in favor of George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.