It didn’t take long.
Barely five weeks after assuming control, the new foreign policy team in Washington confirmed its interventionist credentials by bombing “Iran-backed militias” in Syria. The “defensive precision strike” on Feb. 26, according to the Pentagon statement, was supposed to send “an unambiguous message” that, acting to protect American and Coalition personnel, “we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation in both eastern Syria and Iraq.”
The following day President Joe Biden sent a letter to Congressional leadership in which he claimed that the action was “pursuant to the United States’ inherent right of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.” Since the two targeted militias were allegedly responsible for recent attacks on American personnel in Iraq, the U.S. took “necessary and proportionate action in self-defense” because “the government of the state where the threat is located” (i.e. Iraq) “is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory by non-state militia groups responsible for such attacks.” Biden further asserted that his ordering of the attack was backed by his Constitutional authority.
Biden’s claims are nonsense.
Article 51 of the UN Charter is strictly limited in the authority it grants for military action. The Bush administration tried in vain to invoke it to justify its war in Afghanistan. Article 51 allows for the use of military force by a nation that has been attacked only “until the Security Council has taken measures necessary” to deal with the problem. In this case the United States has plainly not been attacked, and its personnel in Iraq is not present under any UN authorization. Nor has the U.S. government reported its use of force to the Security Council, as it is obligated to do under Article 51, nor does it have any intention of doing so.
The UN is an unnecessary and obsolete institution, devoid of both legitimacy and a meaningful role in today’s world. The U.S. foreign and security policy should not be contingent on its documents or decisions. Since Biden himself invoked its authority to justify his action, however, it was necessary to make clear that his assertion was not supported by law or by logic.
As for the Constitution, Article II Section 2 provides that “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” These ambiguous words have caused many controversies, with various presidents asserting that it gives them power to use the military to do whatever they want, wherever they want. The opposite view holds that the Commander-in-Chief Clause merely prohibits Congress from appointing someone other than the president to the top of the U.S. military hierarchy: it places the president in charge of military operations approved by Congress, but it does not confer broad substantive war powers on him.
Congress has not passed any authorization for the use of military force in Syria. Resolutions passed in 2001-2002 approved action against those responsible for the 9-11 attacks and approved the war in Iraq. There is no constitutional right for a president to order military action without congressional authorization, unless such action is in self-defense against an imminent and real threat. Such extraordinary circumstances plainly were not present in Syria on Feb. 26.
Legal niceties aside, the air strikes were a mistake for four major reasons.
First, they were not proportionate to the threat. The two militias were accused of launching rockets against Erbil on Feb. 15. Three of these rockets struck a U.S.-led coalition base, wounding one U.S. soldier and five civilian contractors, one of whom—a Filipino—subsequently died. The militias denied responsibility in the immediate aftermath of the attack (which is untypical of Islamist militias) and they continue to deny it. It is entirely possible that the attack was a false-flag operation staged by a party interested in torpedoing the resumption of dialogue between the U.S. and Iran. The Middle East is a particularly fertile ground for such operations, as exemplified by the August 2013 poison gas attack in Ghouta near Damascus which was carried out by rebels in order to blame Bashar al Assad’s government.
Secondly, the U.S. attack on Iranian-affiliated militias is a boon to Mohammed bin Salman, the unstable Saudi Crown Prince. The 35-year-old Saudi royal approved the October 2018 operation to kill Jamal Khashoggi, according to a U.S. intelligence report released the same day as America’s air strikes in Syria, Feb. 26. Immediately after the attack, the White House announced its decision not to punish the Crown Prince over the murder of Khashoggi. Biden said during the campaign that Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered on the order of the crown prince. He pledged not to sell more weapons to the Saudis and to “make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.” Mohammed bin Salman’s fortunes have been suddenly revived, mostly due to the possibility of increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. “It appears as though under the Biden administration, despots who offer momentarily strategic value to the United States might be given a ‘one free murder’ pass,” Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan wrote on March 1.
There is nothing wrong in principle with a great power making pragmatic deals with foreign autocrats if such expediency is dictated by tangible strategic value. In this case there is none. As I wrote at the time of Khashoggi’s murder, Saudi Arabia is the global center of promoting and financing Islamic extremism, and no partnership with it is possible until the nature of its regime changes. It is to be feared that the decades-long Beltway conspiracy of silence on Saudi Arabia’s role in abetting Islamic terrorism will now continue.
Thirdly, the attack on a target in Syria was almost calculated to present Russia with another provocative fait accompli, at a time when Biden, Blinken and others routinely engage in Russophobic rhetoric. The Western-instigated, financed, and armed jihadist rebellion in Syria has been decisively defeated thanks to Russia’s involvement, and belated point-scoring there by the new team in Washington lacks strategic rationale. It also risks unintended yet potentially catastrophic escalation. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. gave Moscow just a few minutes' prior warning regarding the pending strike, at a time when the attacking planes were already closing in on their targets. Such cavalier nonchalance is extremely dangerous, considering that Russian warplanes and air defense systems are still actively engaged in Syria.
Last but not least, American military operations in faraway lands are a terrible idea unless vital U.S. security and economic interests are at stake. This is plainly not the case in Syria. If due to a belated American reengagement the government in Damascus is destabilized, however unlikely that seems today, the only beneficiaries would be blood-stained jihadists of different hues. Renewed mayhem in Syria would be far more damaging to U.S. interests, rationally defined, than the survival of Bashar al Assad’s government. Rather than reinforce failure, America should disengage—swiftly, completely, and permanently—from the Middle Eastern quagmire.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.