A weekend of official explanations for President Trump’s airstrikes on a Syrian air base has only deepened the confusion over his intentions, next steps and the legal basis for his unilateral use of force in the middle of that complicated, intractable civil war. The administration will have to do better than this.
Presidents have an obligation to explain military operations to the American people and the world, and, when possible, most begin making their argument well before they take action. In Mr. Trump’s case, the need for clarity is even greater given that the attack on Thursday, in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, was a reversal of the position he campaigned on just months ago.
Now that Mr. Trump has ordered a strike against the Assad government, how far is he prepared to go to end the six-year-old civil war? What does the operation say about his willingness to use force beyond Syria? One troublesome answer may be found in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments on Monday. “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said on a trip to a World War II memorial in Italy, a trip aimed at rallying allies and Russia around a strategy to end the Syrian war.
His words could foreshadow an extraordinary expansion of American intervention. That would defy Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to put “America First.”
These and other comments added to confusion over whether the administration’s focus will be on ousting Mr. Assad or on sticking with Mr. Trump’s stated priority of defeating the Islamic State. Mr. Tillerson, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, said “we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS.” Only after that threat is reduced or eliminated would he turn to a cease-fire process leading to elections so the Syrians could decide Mr. Assad’s fate, he said.
The American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, suggested Mr. Assad’s ouster would have to come before a political transition. “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said on CNN. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” she said there could be other priorities, like getting Iran out of Syria, which would put the United States in direct conflict with one of Mr. Assad’s main backers.
H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, tried to paper over the differences on Fox News, but while he put more emphases on defeating ISIS, he also said the administration might take further action against Mr. Assad including for the use of conventional weapons.
There is also confusion over the strikes’ legality. Whether they were a one-off attack designed to deter chemical weapons use or the start of a larger operation, Mr. Trump has failed to make a compelling legal case, or obtain proper international and congressional authorization, for attacking a sovereign nation.
The White House issued a statement suggesting the attack complied with international law because Mr. Assad violated an international chemical weapons treaty and caused severe humanitarian distress. But Mr. Trump did not seek authorization from the Security Council to use force, as the United Nations Charter requires, or have a valid reason for acting in self-defense.
The statement also suggested Mr. Trump’s action complied with American law because of his powers under Article II of the Constitution to defend national interests by force. President Barack Obama used the same vague argument to justify the Libya intervention of 2011, though many legal experts questioned it then and still do.
Too often in recent years, presidents have taken military action without the authorization of Congress, which shares war-making responsibilities with the president. It is essential that Congress consider a new authorization for the use of military force in Syria both to demonstrate the need for legal justification for military action and to ensure a full vetting of Mr. Trump’s intentions there.