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Can the U.S. Launch Missiles When It Wants To and Where It Wants To?

May 10, 2017
Plain English Version

A satellite image released by the Pentagon of the military’s assessment of damage to Al Shayrat airfield in Syria after airstrikes last month. Credit Digital Globe, via Reuters

The U.S. sent missiles to take out a Syrian airfield. It was in response to Syria using chemical weapons. The U.S. action pleased many people in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Suppose the Prime Minister of Australia did the same? Can any country attack any country when it feels like it?

The answer is yes. In 1941, Japan attacked Hawaii without warning. Japan did not give a reason. The attack became the reason the U.S. entered World War II.

That war ended. The world then tried to find legal ways to deal with wars in the future. The United Nations (U.N.) was to be the chief way to regulate the forces of war. The U.N. Charter recognizes two legal ways for a country to use force against another country. One is if the U.N. Security Council authorizes an attack. The other is self-defense.

The U.S. went to the U.N. for resolutions to fight in Korea and South Vietnam. There were U.N. resolutions for the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003

President Clinton joined with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to bomb in the Balkans. President Obama did the same when the U.S. bombed Libya.

The U.S. lays out the reasons for all these interventions in painstaking detail. This country follows the rules of international law.

There has to be a good legal reason to use force. The U.N. Security Council did not agree to a strike to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The Trump government did not show the legal basis for the cruise missile attack it launched.

President Obama faced the same problem in 2013. Syria used chemical weapons. NATO was involved. The U.N. did not have a resolution allowing the use of such weapons.

President Obama did not choose to go to the U.S. Congress for support. It would have given him some cover. In the end, he pulled back from confronting Syria. Even though Syria passed the “red line” warning by the president. President Obama did not attack. Instead, he allowed the Russians to solve the problem.

His decision gave Russia its foothold in the Middle East. Many regret his decision.

Obama was trying to follow the rule of law. A legal group is now bringing a case against President Trump. They say he did not follow the rules. Is there a legal document listing the legitimate reasons for using force? Can the president do anything he wants to do? The legal group says one of two things is true. He does not have a legal basis for the attack. Or he does not want to have debate and oversight on what he does.

Source: The New York Times May 8, 2017

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