In one of his first concrete actions as U.S. president, Joe Biden ordered his first use of lethal military force on Feb. 25. He sent two war jets to Syria where they dropped seven bombs on facilities used by Iran-supported militias. An estimated 17 people were killed. President Biden, who has warned of a heavy reliance on American military intervention, is now the seventh consecutive U.S. president to order strikes in the Middle East.
Two days later, he explained to Congress that the bombings were necessary as a reprisal against those militias for a Feb. 15 rocket attack in Iraq that injured an American service member and killed a U.S. contractor. It was also meant as deterrence. “You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he said in comments to reporters, sending a message to Iran and its armed proxies.
What these actions indicate are the qualities of leadership that Mr. Biden might use as chief executive and commander in chief over the next four years. In asserting a responsibility on an issue of war, was he transparent to Americans about his goals? Did he deliberate enough with top members of Congress to form a consensus on the use of force? Was he disciplined enough to stay within the law and not escalate a conflict?
That last question may be of most interest to lawmakers as the administration provides more details to Congress about the airstrikes during classified briefings this week. Democrats have been more critical than Republicans, especially as they want the president to focus on domestic needs. Some claim the strikes were offensive, not defensive. Others cite insufficient notice before the attack. Given how much Congress has walked away from its war-making powers and allowed presidents since the 1940s to act unilaterally with military actions, both parties are curious about Mr. Biden’s legal justifications.
One of his justifications, not used since Bill Clinton was president, was to claim an inherent right of self-defense for U.S. soldiers and their partners under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Mr. Biden did not justify the attacks by citing a 2001 law authorizing force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks or 2003 law relating to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet his most novel reason was that Syria was “unwilling or unable” to prevent the use of its territory by the militia groups held responsible for the attacks on Americans in Iraq, where there are about 2,500 U.S. troops.
Congress has not explicitly authorized U.S. military action in Syria. And a discussion of this issue may be a starting point for Mr. Biden to show a different kind of leadership by working with Congress to refine the legal underpinnings for future military action.
By being forthright in his justifications, Mr. Biden has earned enough trust with Congress for the two branches to define the proper thresholds and responsibilities for the use of force overseas. Qualities of leadership do matter on issues of war. With shared reason and wisdom, the separate powers of government can unite in deciding how military action can best achieve peace.
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