Deconstructed Podcast: Is Trump About to Start an Illegal War With Syria?

This week the president threatened to bomb Syria via tweet. Will congress ever re-assert its war powers?

Photo: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

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The war in Syria is seemingly without end: Seven long years of bloodshed, terror, foreign interventions and — perhaps most horrifically — the use of chemical weapons to kill women and children. The latest such incident in Douma has prompted president Donald Trump to threaten his second aerial attack against the Assad regime since coming to office. But on what authority, and with what plan? This week on Deconstructed, Mehdi Hasan speaks to Rep. Barbara Lee, one of the most principled and consistent voices against U.S. military interventions on Capitol Hill, and the only member of congress to vote against the invasion of Afghanistan back in 2001. And with Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Obama adviser Ilan Goldenberg about whether or not the Obama administration is to blame for the current crisis in Syria — and whether Trump is following in Obama’s footsteps by going to war without congressional approval.


Congresswoman Barbara Lee: Last year this president fired, what, 59 Tomahawks into Syria. And what happened? Here we are again.

Mehdi Hasan: I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed, where we try and get behind the headlines, beyond the spin and outside the bubble of the conventional media wisdom.

This week, Syria — a war seemingly without end. Seven long years of bloodshed, terror, foreign interventions and, perhaps most horrifically of all, the repeated use of chemical weapons to kill women and children. The latest such incident in Douma has prompted President Donald Trump to threaten his second aerial attack against the Assad regime since coming to office in January 2017.

But on what authority? And with what plan? I’ll speak to Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of the most principled and consistent voices against U.S. military interventions on Capitol Hill, and the only member of Congress to vote against the invasion of Afghanistan back in 2001.

BL: The president needs to come to Congress. If he’s going to use force in Syria, he needs to come to Congress for an authorization. We need to debate the costs and consequences and make some decisions as to whether or not we will authorize the use of force.

MH: Forget Russiagate: Is this the real constitutional crisis? And how close are we to kicking off World War III in the Middle East?

[Musical interlude.]

MH: I’m not pacifist. My view is that war is always evil, but sometimes a necessary evil. But only, only when it’s an absolute last resort — when there are no other options, when there’s no alternative, and when it’s legal, when it’s proportionate and when it has a reasonable chance of success. Those are the criteria that I’d apply when judging a bombing campaign or a new war.

Those are the criteria that countless scholars, philosophers, theologians, jurists through the ages have used to determine whether a war is just or not. And yet, almost none of those criteria have been met in Syria where Donald Trump is on the verge of launching a new bombing campaign against the Bashar al-Assad regime, alongside France, the UK, and the freedom-loving kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My own position on Syria and on military action in Syria is a pretty straightforward one. Bashar al-Assad is monster. He is! He’s a monster. But U.S. military intervention does nothing to stop him being a monster. And like so many interventions before it, will only make things worse.

And look: it’s completely fine to hold both of those views in your head at the same time. There is no contradiction between them. The fact that you don’t support bombing Syria doesn’t make you an Assad supporter or stooge, nor does the fact that you recognize Assad is the biggest monster in Syria, responsible for the most deaths and the most refugees, recognizing that fact doesn’t automatically mean that you must support U.S. air raids against his regime. There is no automatic connection between those two beliefs.

Look, this isn’t about whether Assad used chemical weapons or not. Let’s assume he did. A study co-authored by the U.N. last year concluded that his forces were behind the sarin attack in rebel-held Khan Sheikhun. So let’s assume it was him last weekend in Douma, too. And yet the reality is that even if Assad was the one who used chemical weapons, there is no evidence that dropping bombs on Syria now will stop him from doing it again, will protect Syrians from future such attacks.

Think about it: Just a year ago, Trump fired off 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian military airbase in response to the Khan Sheikhun sarin attack. And he and his people and their media cheerleaders were so pleased with themselves after they did it.

Sean Hannity: With airstrikes in Syria, President Trump, he showed you, the American people and the entire world, the difference between leading from behind and leading from out front.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis: This military action demonstrates the United States will not passively stand by while Assad blithely ignores international law and employs chemical weapons.

Sebastian Gorka: What you’ve seen in the last 48 hours is President Trump being more decisive than Obama was in the last eight years.

Sean Hannity: We now have decisiveness and leadership. Timidity has been replaced by bold action.

MH: And yet, almost exactly a year later, Assad is accused of gassing his own people again. A fat lot of good that last missile attack did.

To quote from a tweet this week by Emma Ashford, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington D.C., “For those who want a military response, the question is simple. Can you tell me any practical response short of full-fledged invasion that could prevent this?”

She’s right. Just dropping a few bombs doesn’t change the equation from Assad’s point of view. For him, it’s all or nothing. Though, it might make us feel better about ourselves! And yet here in D.C., voices like Emma Ashford’s are pretty rare. The consensus view is that military action is the right thing to do, the necessary thing to do, the only thing to do when confronted with monsters like Assad, when dealing with massacres abroad.

And it works, apparently. Here in Washington there’s no problem which can’t be fixed by a good ole airstrike. There’s no crisis which can’t be resolved by a big shiny bomb. There’s no situation which can’t be improved by a generous application of high explosives.

Fareed Zakaria: I think Donald trump became president of the United States. I think this was actually a big moment.

Brian Williams: We see these beautiful pictures at night, I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

MH: That was Fareed Zakaria and Brian Williams respectively embarrassing themselves a year ago. And, more importantly, reminding Trump that the media may not like most of what he does on a daily basis at home, but they sure like it when he acts presidential and throws missiles at a faraway country about which he knows little.

By the way, a lot of the media coverage also suggests that Trump gets worked up about chemical weapons because he sees pictures of kids choking on gas on his Twitter timeline — which is complete and utter horseshit. The idea that Trump gives a damn about Syrians is perhaps the most offensive and ridiculous idea of all. This is a man who bans Syrian refugees, including children, from coming to the U.S. — that’s how much he cares about them. Trump and his people are constantly comparing refugees to animals.

President Donald J. Trump: “Oh shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in!”

MH: That’s the president quoting Al Wilson’s song, “The Snake,” a charming metaphor for the refugee crisis and here’s his housing secretary Ben Carson, pulling a similar rhetorical stunt, comparing Syrian refugees to rabid dogs.

Secretary Ben Carson: If there’s a rabid dog running around your neighborhood, you’re probably not going to assume something good about that dog. We have to have in place screening mechanisms that allow us to determine who the mad dogs are, quite frankly.

MH: So if you’re gassed by Assad, Trump will bomb Assad on your behalf, but he won’t let you flee that gas and come and take refuge here in the U.S. — no, he’d rather you stay there and die. To call the president of the United States of America hypocrite is really an insult to hypocrites.

And, look, this is about Trump. It is. You can’t get away from Trump. There are a lot of liberals who say Trump is deranged, unhinged, corrupt, unqualified, ignorant, erratic — and, yet, they also trust him to launch a war against Assad, and maybe Russia, too.

I mean, you can’t say one day that Trump is a madman who should be removed from office via impeachment or the 25th Amendment, and the next day say you’re OK with him prosecuting what could, God forbid, turn into World War III in the Middle East. It makes no sense.

And then there are the Trump supporters, who have to ask themselves how they’re OK with a president who campaigned on the basis of Middle East wars being bad for America, who went on and on about how he opposed the Iraq War — he didn’t, by the way, that’s a lie. But he claimed to oppose Iraq and the many military misadventures in the Middle East under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

President Donald J. Trump: Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big fat mistake, alright?

MH: So how can those Trump supporters now be OK with their hero as president launching yet another Middle East war, another potential regime-change mission, in that already unstable region? People say: Well, it’s not the same thing. Syria isn’t Iraq. Stop bringing up Iraq! This is about punishing chemical weapons use, this is not about regime change, they say. Maybe. But that’s what they told us about Libya, too. That we’re only protecting the people of Benghazi, we’re not out to topple Colonel Qaddafi. And look what that turned into! Look how that worked out.

And also, there is one crucial way in which Syria is very much like Iraq, which is the legal angle. We were told that Saddam was violating U.N. resolutions by building WMDs, and so in order to supposedly enforce those U.N. resolutions, we violated the U.N. charter in what the then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called, an “illegal” war.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan: It is not in conformity with the U.N. charter from my point of view. And from the charter point of view, It was illegal.

MH: In Syria, we’re now being told that we have to strike Assad for using chemical weapons, which is a massive violation of international law, the undermining of a key international norm. But in order to uphold international law on chemical weapons, we have to violate international law, which bans the use of force without either an imminent threat to your country or without a U.N. Security Council resolution. Last time I checked, neither of those things applied in Syria. Syria is not a threat to the United States of America, and there is no U.N. resolution approving a Trump airstrike.

By the way, it’s interesting that Tony Blair, the former British prime minister emerged this week from whatever shiny rock he lives under these days, to call for current prime minister Theresa May to take military action in Syria alongside Trump, and to ignore the British parliament. Just to do it, without a parliamentary vote. U.S. neoconservatives and other hawks have made similar noises here. So it’s all very well saying: Stop talking about Iraq, Syria is different, when the architects of the Iraq War keep popping up and making the case for action in Syria.

Look, this is not just about international law. This is about domestic law, U.S. law, the U.S. constitution. After all, what authority does Donald Trump have to launch a new war in Syria against the Assad regime? Remember Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11, of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. So why does the president seem to think he has authority here? Why is Congress willing so passively to grant him that authority.

Well, that takes us back to a little something called the AUMF. See, the United States is already bombing Syria, is bombing ISIS in Syria and has been for years. Let’s be clear about that: It’s killed hundreds of Syrian civilians there already, and it does so under the AUMF, the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress in September 2001, after 9/11 — which, itself, is a pretty tenuous justification for bombing ISIS in Syria, given ISIS didn’t exist in 2001 and had nothing to do with 9/11. But while you can at least make a flimsy case for bombing the jihadists of ISIS with the 2001 AUMF, which both the Obama and Trump administrations often do, you can’t make any case for bombing the Assad government with that AUMF. Assad had nothing to do with 9/11.

Remember, Trump himself tweeted in 2013, when President Obama was considering bombing Assad over chemical weapons use then, “The president must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Big mistake if he does not.” There really is a Trump tweet, by the way, for every occasion.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: So, Trump attacking Syria will be illegal. It could even be an impeachable offense. Add it to the long list of impeachable offenses he may already have committed.

But what is Congress going to do about it. Is there anyone in Congress willing to stand up to him in this manner?

My guest today is Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee, from California, chair of the Peace and Security committee of the House Progressive Caucus, one of the leading figures in the U.S. antiwar movement, and the only member of either chamber of Congress to vote against that AUMF, that Authorization of the Use of [Military] Force, following the 9/11 attacks. She was the only member to vote against the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan — and given the mess Afghanistan is in today, 17 years later, with the Taliban undefeated, with no end in sight, I think she stands pretty vindicated on that.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: Congresswoman Barbara Lee, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed. We’re here in the Capitol with all the associated background noises. Let me start by asking you this: Donald Trump wants to fire missiles, he’s bragging about it on Twitter, at the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Do you support airstrikes as a response to this alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria?

Congresswoman Barbara Lee: So, I don’t support what this president is doing. You don’t put people in jeopardy, our young men and women in jeopardy, and create havoc by announcing that you’re possibly going to use force to go to war via Twitter. That’s just wrong.

Secondly, the president needs to come to Congress. If he’s going to use force in Syria, he needs to come to Congress for an authorization. We need to debate the costs and consequences, and make some decisions as to whether or not we will authorize the use of force. The Constitution requires Congress to do that. Congress has been missing in action.

Thirdly, when you look at the horrific attacks against civilians, we’re not going to just turn our heads and say “This is going to go away.” We need a full international response to bring those who have perpetrated these horrific crimes to justice.

MH: A lot of supporters of airstrikes will say, “Well, how do you bring them to justice without military force, without the credible threat of force, if not actual attacks on Syrian military positions?”

BL: Last year, this president fired, what, 59 Tomahawks into Syria? And what happened? Here we are again. The use of force and bombing will not bring Assad and the perpetrators of this horrific crime to justice. We have to have an international response, and it has to be based on diplomacy and a political strategy.

MH: Just to be clear, are you saying that Donald Trump, as commander-in-chief, does not have the legal authority to launch airstrikes against Assad without Congressional approval?

BL: Only Congress has the authority to declare war. The president has to come to Congress, based on our Constitution, to authorize the use of force.

But this president, just like President Obama and President Bush, used the 2001 resolution, the authorization to use force, which I voted against, because I knew it was a blank check.

MH: You were the only person to vote against that, I believe.

BL: Yeah. I was the only person vote against this blank check. It was a 60-word resolution authorization. That has been used over 41 times, according to the Congressional Research Service.

MH: Going back to 2001, that was a vote that lead to Afghanistan, Afghanistan led to Iraq, black-sites, Guantanamo Bay, the whole War on Terror.

BL: Drone attacks. Yemen. Guantanamo.

MH: Indeed! Which Obama inherited, and escalated in some ways. So my question to you is: Back in 2001, what was that atmosphere like, when you were that one dissenting voice? Because, in many ways, you’ve been vindicated on that vote. You look at the Afghanistan mess today, 17 years later, it’s not exactly a success story.

What was it like at the time, being in this building, and saying, “You know what? I’m not up for war, straight away, as a response to 9/11.”

BL: Well, first I think that being in this building was a very — I’m glad I was in this building. Secondly, it was a terrible time. It was — we had lost over 3000 individuals. You know, people in New York, here, I was in the capital when the Pentagon was bombed, had to evacuate when the airplane crashed into the Pentagon. So it was a very scary time.

My chief of staff then, lost his cousin on Flight 93, which was, they say, was coming into the Capitol, and I was sitting in the Capitol at 8:30 that morning. And so the fear and the anger and the despair was very prevalent, just like it was throughout the country. Because of that, though, I believe that members of Congress should have been more rational, because we’re elected, especially in times of national security crisis, to be the thoughtful leaders, rather than go with the flow. And so when I voted no, and I had spoke for a minute or two on the floor and said I thought this was going to spiral out of control. It was a blank check. It was overly broad, and we shouldn’t be doing this, three days after the horrific attacks. There was no way I could vote for that.

MH: It’s still being used today to justify attacks on ISIS in Syria, when ISIS wasn’t even in existence in 2001.

BL: Yeah. Yeah. And I knew that then. And I think now, when you look at where the public is, and where members of Congress have come, it took 16 years, but I think people are ready. If Speaker Ryan and the leadership here would allow the repeal of that amendment, I think we would have that done. And we would have time to debate and come up with, if, in fact, we needed to come up with new authorizations, that could be done.

But what I have seen in this administration, especially, the three Ds that we try to base our foreign policy and military policy pillars on — diplomacy, development and defense — two of those Ds are gone. It’s defense only. When you look at John Bolton, I mean this man wants to go to war everywhere in the world. When you look at Pompeo.

MH: And his first day at work is Syria, should we bomb Syria on his first day of work? What a timing.

BL: Yeah. So this is dangerous, and I think that sooner or later the public is going to understand that the resources that are not going into their community for schools and housing and infrastructure and jobs, you know, are going to the Pentagon for this excessive budget that has nothing to do with national security, but more about an agenda that’s the continuation of a war machine.

MH: Barbara Lee, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

BL: OK. Thank you.

MH: Thank you.

[Musical interlude.]

MH: That was Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She represents the 13th District of California. So how much is the Barack Obama presidency to blame for the current situation in Syria, and did Barack Obama’s attack on Libya without congressional approval allow Donald Trump today to attack Syria without congressional approval?

I’m joined now by the former Obama Pentagon official, Ilan Goldenberg, who’s currently a senior fellow and Middle East security expert at the Center for a New American Security here in Washington D.C..

Ilan, thanks for coming on the show.

Ilan Goldenberg: Great to be here.

MH: You wrote a piece for Foreign Policy just a few days ago, you coauthored a piece with another former Obama official, Derek Chollet, which was headlined, “One Year Ago, Pundits Welcomed a Turning Point in Syria. They Were Wrong.”

Why do you think Trump has got his Syria policy wrong? Let’s start there.

IG: Sure, I mean that’s sort of why he has his policy wrong on everything in the Middle East, which is there really isn’t a policy or a strategy. It’s a combination of campaign promises, things that — doing the opposite of what Obama did and then just gut feeling.

So in the case of Syria, in particular, we have two things happening at once. When we had the chemical weapon attack last year, and we had these missile strikes there was celebration that Trump was going to be more muscular than Obama across the board.

Now, on the one hand, I supported those strikes in that I thought it makes sense to try to at least deter the use of chemical weapons. But you got to have a plan for what you’re going to do afterwards.

MH: Isn’t the problem here that while there is a case for military action, unless you’re a pacifist, there is a case for military action in cases where chemical weapons are being used, people are being massacred, can you really trust Donald Trump to carry out military action in that way? Because I’m guessing, Ilan, you’re somebody who criticizes him day in, day out, in other walks of life — I think it’s fair, without even knowing your views on his policies, I’m going to guess that you think he’s a little bit corrupt, he’s quite dishonest, he might be a little bit unhinged. And yet the same people who think that are willing to give him a little bit of a pass or the benefit of the doubt on foreign affairs. How does that work?

IG: Basically, people try to suspend disbelief, and I agree with you, they try to treat this administration — and I’m guilty of it sometimes myself, you can’t help it — treat this as though it’s a normal administration, just conducting normal foreign policy, and this is a normal president and when he does something like a limited military strike to try to deter chemical weapons, that’s a normal thing.

But then you, you know you wake up in the morning and you open up your Twitter and you see the president basically taunting the Russians and daring them to respond. And you’re like: No, this is not normal.

MH: There is this view in Washington D.C., that the best response to a foreign crisis is to take military action. There are a lot of people in D.C., not just on the right, but even on the left, in the center, in the Democratic Party, who think, you know, we should apply U.S. military power. There’s a problem, there’s a dictator, there’s a massacre, there’s, you know, there’s a problem that needs resolving, send in the U.S. Air Force, send in the Marines.

You work in foreign policy here in Washington D.C., there is that mentality, isn’t there, across the city?

IG: There is an instinct to do that, especially when you’re frustrated in a situation like Syria, where, for so long, we’ve done, we’ve just sort of felt helpless.

I’m not opposed to military force necessarily, but I think the whole point of military force when you use it is to achieve a political outcome. Right? That’s what you’re trying to do. You actually have to have a plan of, “What is this actually trying to achieve and can it meaningfully achieve that and is it worth the cost and is it worth the risk?” And those are all the things you have to weigh.

And I think as President Obama weighed all of those things, that’s why he came to the conclusion of, “Don’t do it.”

MH: One war, which Barack Obama did embark upon, which he later regretted in some ways, was the Libya intervention in 2011, which, again, began as a humanitarian intervention, protect the people of Benghazi, and ended up being regime change, Qaddafi, kind of assaulted, sodomized and murdered in the desert by rebel groups with U.S. air support.

So Trump, when he bombed Syria last year, the Trump Administration offered Libya as their legal get-out.

They said: What Obama did in Libya, we can do this, because the AUMF, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force after 9/11 does not apply here to Assad. Assad had nothing to do with 9/11. You can’t justify it.

How legally, do you think Trump can justify this, and if he does point to Libya, isn’t Obama guilty of the same law-breaking as Trump when it comes to foreign military intervention?

IG: So I’ll say this: I think both these presidents, in some ways, have really pushed the envelope in terms of the Authorization for Use of Military Force, but the fault lies with them, but it also lies with Congress. Because Congress is very happy to clap about military intervention, it just doesn’t want to vote on it ever. So they’ll all come out with public statements supporting the strikes. They all came out in support of the Libya intervention, and most of them did. Most of them came out and supported Trump’s missile strikes last year.

MH: It’s almost like they don’t want to exercise their own responsibility.

IG: Exactly. What really should happen here is —

MH: Wow, the members of Congress are cowards. Breaking news!

IG: Yeah. You know, they should be, and I spent some time actually in the Senate, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is the committee that does this, there are members who want to push this, a guy like Tim Kaine, even Bob Corker, there are thoughtful senators who say: We need a new AUMF, we need to think about this.

MH: And Barbara Lee in the House of Representatives who I just spoke with.

IG: Yeah. Absolutely. We need to think about this, and the answer is not necessarily no military force, but the end but the but the answer is let’s actually have a new Authorization for Use of Military Force that deals with some of these questions, and actually exercises their prerogative as Congress, because if you don’t, you put these presidents in a situation where, you know, either you’re taking military force off the table altogether or they just have to go off and do it on their own and they get political support afterwards. Those don’t make sense.

MH: You’re a man who’s worked on Middle East policy for many years, including inside the U.S. government, inside the Pentagon. Tell our listeners how scared, how concerned, how worried should they be on a scale of one to ten when it comes to Trump in the Middle East.

IG: Uh, I would probably say — I would probably put it at about an eight. I think there’s things to be more scared about, actually, in some ways, in terms, of North Korea actually scares me. If I really wanted to be scared — where I’m a ten is actually over in Northeast Asia, and the possibility of —

MH: Yay! Middle East gets an eight compared to North Korea.

IG: (Laughs.) I really went. But there is a scenario, where, a year from now, because North Korea talks have gone nowhere, he’s under potential threat of impeachment with a Democratic Congress. The economy is slowing down because of his irresponsible economic policies, John Bolton is whispering in his ear, he’s feeling encircled as the —

MH: Assad is still killing people in Syria.

IG: Yeah, you know, Assad is still killing people in Syria, we’re out of the Iran nuclear deal, and then the thing I worry about is less Syria and more: Does this become, does military action against Iran start to come on the table? That’s, to me, I think the sort of scariest problem in the Middle East for the next few years, if things really start to go off the rails with the current Trump policy.

MH: Ilan Goldenberg, thanks for coming and giving us that bleak assessment. Appreciate it.

IG: Great to be here.

MH: That was Ilan Goldenberg from the Center for a New American Security, and a former Pentagon official under President Obama.

And that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply.

Our producer is Zach Young. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw and Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief.

I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every Friday. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice.

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