In ordering Friday’s strike on a Syrian airbase, President Donald J. Trump sent the U.S. military into combat without Congress’s blessing. He has punished the Assad regime for its use of sarin nerve gas on its own people and only begun to correct the mistakes the Obama administration made when it allowed the Syrian civil war to metastasize into a conflict that is destabilizing the Middle East.
For its troubles, however, the Trump administration has come under fire from his conservative flank. Libertarian senator Rand Paul demands that Trump seek congressional authorization, while distinguished conservative law professor Mike Paulsen and National Review editor Kevin Williamson argue in these pages that the strikes violate the Constitution. Their arguments add to the outrage of Trump supporters, such as Ann Coulter, who tweeted: “Those who wanted us meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates.”
Without any congressional approval, presidents have sent forces to battle Indians, Barbary pirates, and Russian revolutionaries; to fight North Korean and Chinese Communists in Korea; to engineer regime changes in South and Central America; and to prevent human-rights disasters in the Balkans. Other conflicts, such as the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 Iraq War, received legislative “authorization” but not declarations of war. The practice of presidential initiative, followed by congressional acquiescence, has spanned both Democratic and Republican administrations and reaches back from President Trump to Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.