US President Joe Biden's order to launch air strikes in Syria sparked new debates about the president's warring powers, with leading Democratic allies on Capitol Hill expressing discomfort about military action without prior approval from Congress.
Biden approved strikes against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria on Thursday, marking the first major military action of his presidency. Almost immediately, senior Democratic lawmakers began pressuring the White House to get answers about what legal justifications were used to conduct the strikes, and re-posed questions about a president's constitutional warfare that has become an integral part of the government Foreign policy struggles between former President Donald Trump and Capitol Hill were taking place.
"I am very concerned that the US forces' strike in Syria last night puts our country on the path to resuming the eternal war rather than ending it," Senator Bernie Sanders said in a statement. "This is the same path we have taken for almost two decades. For far too long the administrations of both parties have made their authorities extremely expansive in order to continue military interventions throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. This must end."
Biden's response to renewed pressure from Capitol Hill, according to the congressional aides, will be an important factor in how he manages relations with Congress and whether he joins his party's left flank pressure on foreign policy.
Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Chris Murphy also issued statements indicating discomfort with the strikes, with Kaine urging the government to "expeditiously" give Congress full information on the matter.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden briefed congressional leaders of the action last night and informed lawmakers and congressional officials today. "There will be a fully classified briefing no later than the beginning of next week," she said in a statement. The White House did not respond to additional requests for comment.
During his four-year tenure, Trump was fended off repeated attempts by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to roll back the president's ability to conduct military operations without the approval of Congress. The political struggles in Washington stemmed from debates over constitutional powers and were at the center of the murky way the United States has conducted military engagements in the Middle East over the past two decades.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday that Article II of the US Constitution gave Biden "not only the authority, but the obligation" to direct the air strikes. The Pentagon said it used two F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft in the strikes that destroyed nine facilities used by Iranian-backed militias along the Syria-Iraq border and rendered two other structures unusable.
Sanders, Murphy and Kaine have all supported bipartisan measures to repeal nearly two decade-old provisions authorizing expansive military forces of the president dating back to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Kaine in 2018 held month-long endorsement by a senior Trump Middle East envoy on legal issues related to Trump's decision to order rocket strikes in Syria during his first year in office.
Now some of Trump's most staunch critics in Congress are saying they want to keep Biden on the same standards.
"I have inherent faith in President Biden's national security decision and I know how seriously he takes the warring powers of Congress," Murphy said. "But Congress should keep this administration to the same standard as previous administrations and require clear legal justifications for military action, especially in theaters like Syria where Congress has not specifically approved American military action."
Legal scholars say Trump's approach to the warring powers authorities leaves the Biden government sensitive and open questions to grapple with over the powers of the presidency set out in Article II of the Constitution. “The picture that emerges from reporting to Congress by Trump's warring powers is an extraordinarily broad vision of the president's power to use force abroad without congressional approval and a willingness to exploit loopholes in reporting to obtain information about its use being obscured from the public, ”wrote Tess Bridgeman, a former legal adviser on the Obama administration's National Security Council and co-editor of Just security.
The US strikes in Syria, reprisals against missile strikes against US and coalition forces in Iraq earlier this month, underscore Iran’s influence in the wider Middle East and its deputy threat to US troops. It also highlights the highly charged tensions between Washington and Tehran as the Biden administration works to revive Iran's nuclear talks.
Some critics of Biden, including Republican lawmakers who spoke out against the president's efforts to open diplomatic negotiations with Iran, praised the airstrikes as a necessary response to Iranian aggression to stave off future attacks.
"After several unanswered attacks against US interests, I applaud the government's decision to authorize air strikes against Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria," said Senator James Risch, Republican chief on the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. "We must not allow the Iranian regime to hide behind Iran-backed militias that pose a significant threat to US national security interests."
Meanwhile, some reluctant Republicans criticized Biden's strike decision. "I condemn meddling in the Syrian Civil War," said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul tweeted on Friday. "I also condemn the attack on a sovereign nation without authority."
Some experts expect the Iranian officials' attacks to continue even if Tehran agrees to resume talks with the United States and its European allies to contain its nuclear weapons program.
"The Biden team learns that the extension of an olive branch to the regime in Tehran will not affect Iran's goal of driving the US out of the region or changing its methods of persecuting it," said Kirsten Fontenrose, an expert at the Atlantic Council and a former senior National Security Council official at Trump's White House.