President Donald Trump acted appropriately Thursday in ordering an attack involving dozens of Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian airbase from which Syrian aircraft earlier this week launched a nerve gas attack that killed scores of civilians, including more than a dozen children.
The U.S. strike isn’t its first attack in Syria; previous airstrikes have targeted Islamic State locations. This is, however, the first time the United States has taken direct military action against President Bashar al-Assad, who has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people in the last six years, including some through the use of chemical weapons.
Though attacking another sovereign nation is generally regarded as an act of war, President Trump was correct to step in when the rest of the world seemed content merely to condemn President Assad’s actions while allowing innocent civilians to die horrible deaths.
Importantly, the U.S. strike was limited to the Syrian military installation, American goals included sending Syria and its advocates the clear message that the use of chemical weapons, a blatant violation of international law, will not be tolerated.
What happens next will matter immensely. As President Trump knows, having warned President Barack Obama several years ago against attacking Syria for using chemical weapons (and then blaming his inaction for emboldening President Assad), the situation is filled with peril.
Syrian, Russian and Iranian condemnation of the U.S. strike was predictable but hollow. Russia and Iran are aiding and abetting President Assad in his crimes against humanity, and Russia not only seized Crimea from Ukraine but is helping rebels fight Ukraine’s army and is threatening other former Soviet republics. Russian outrage should be tempered by the fact that the United States warned it that the strike was imminent.
The U.S. strike also drew the attention of China and North Korea, both of which joined in condemnation. Yet if the realization that the United States is willing to act when a situation calls for force gives those nations pause, that’s fine. Unless they’re willing to tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction by a sovereign nation, their condemnation ought to be directed at Syria for using such weapons and at Russia and Iran for allowing it.
Congressional support for the president’s action, while far from unanimous, is coming from Democrats as well as Republicans. Even though President Trump said he was acting in America’s security interests in ordering the strike, he would be wrong to ignore Sen. Rand Paul and others who object that he acted without the authorization of Congress as is required by the Constitution.