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Congress Calls For Vote On Authorizing Use Of Force In Syria


When the United States carries out an attack on another nation, as it did last night on an air base in Syria, there is usually a legal justification to back it up. Not this time, at least the Trump administration has offered none so far. With no prior blessing from either the United Nations or Congress, many are asking whether the attack on Syria broke the law. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: One thing you cannot say about the Tomahawk missile attack of that Syrian air base, that the Trump administration did not warn it was coming. At the United Nations yesterday, U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley told her colleagues that when the international community fails to act collectively against the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, nation states may act alone. Today, Haley sought to justify last night's airstrikes.


NIKKI HALEY: The United States will not stand by when chemical weapons are used. It is in our vital national security interests to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons.

WELNA: But Georgetown law professor Marty Lederman, who served in the Obama Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, says the U.S. has veered outside international law under Article 2 of the United Nations Charter. He says the state cannot use force within the territory of another state without that state's consent.

MARTY LEDERMAN: There are one or two exceptions to the norm. One is if it's an act of inherent self-defense. That's not at issue here. Another would be if the U.N. Security Council had approved it. That also has not happened here. And so there does not appear that there is any argument, at least none that we've heard yet, why this action would not breach the United Nations Charter.

WELNA: Another veteran of the Obama administration, however, is defending the Syria airstrike. Harold Koh is a Yale law professor who was the State Department's legal adviser during Obama's first term. Koh says a limited one-shot action like this should not be forbidden.

HAROLD KOH: If you are rushing your spouse to a hospital to deliver a baby and you're trying to decide whether you can run a red light, you take that risk and hope that you're not going to be held liable after the fact. And that's essentially what they did last night.

WELNA: Which is why Koh says there need to be exceptions in international law, as well.

KOH: If the ban on the use of force in the U.N. Charter is absolute, unless there is a U.N. Security Council resolution, Russia or China could commit genocide against its own people indefinitely and veto resolutions against it, and nobody could do a thing about it. How can that be consistent with the purposes of the U.N.?

WELNA: Trump could have also sought prior approval from Congress for last night's attack in the form of a new authorization for the use of military force or AUMF. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain says a new a new AUMF is needed but not right now.


JOHN MCCAIN: We have to respect the role of the president as commander in chief. And I would be glad and will continue to engage in negotiations with my Democrat friends on a new AUMF, but I'm not ready for Congress to micromanage the commander in chief.

WELNA: Georgetown's Lederman says Obama refused to order airstrikes against Syria's military because Congress would not agree to it.

LEDERMAN: President Trump might have had much more success, either internationally or domestically with Republican Congress, at attaining such authorization. And one of the most important and, thus far, unanswered questions in this episode is why he did not even make any efforts to put this under stronger international law or domestic law footing?

WELNA: A footing that many in Congress are now demanding. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOPS SONG, "OUTSIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.