By Gabriella Garcia and Josue Monroy
On Feb. 25, President Joe Biden ordered a strike on a non-state militia site in eastern Syria without congressional authorization. The airstrike—which was the first known military action under his leadership—destroyed “multiple facilities,” according to the Pentagon. Latest reports from NBC News found that the strike killed one militia fighter and wounded two others.
According to CNBC, the Pentagon briefed congressional leadership before initiating the strike but did not receive or ask for any authorization from Congress.
In a letter that Biden sent to Congress’s leaders explaining his reasoning for having ordered the strike, Biden claimed the attack was within his constitutional right as president because it was done in self-defense.
President Biden claimed the action was “pursuant to the United States’ inherent right of self-defense as reflected in Article 51 of the United Nations charter,” according to CNN.
The airstrike was in response to the Feb. 15 attack on the Erbil International Airport, which hosts a U.S.-led coalition military base in northern Iraq, CNBC reports. On this day, a rocket hit the area which killed a military contractor with the coalition and injured several others.
According to the Pentagon, the facilities Biden targeted are believed to be used by the Iranian-backed militia involved in the rocket attack on the airport, thus justifying Biden’s airstrike as an act of self-defense.
News also recently broke out about President Biden’s decision to cancel a second airstrike that was set to occur on Feb. 26 due to the presence of a woman and a couple of children. Biden received the intelligence 30 minutes before the bombs were scheduled to fall, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The Wall Street Journal also reports that the location of the first airstrike was deliberately chosen to occur in the middle of the night, avoid Iraqi territory and minimize any casualties.
Per the United States Constitution, Congress is the only governmental body that can declare acts of war.
Nevertheless, Democratic Congress Members criticized not only the attack but Biden’s decision to do so without Congressional approval.
Democratic Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) both publicly expressed their disapproval of Biden’s unilateral action.
Senator Kaine, who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, writes, “Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances. Congress must be fully briefed on this matter expeditiously.”
Murphy, also a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, explains his position, “… retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent an imminent threat, must fall within the definition of an existing congressional authorization of military force.”
Murphy adds that while he trusts the president’s decision making and knows “how seriously [President Biden] takes Congress’s war-making powers,” he believes this administration should be held to the same standard as prior administrations “and require clear legal justifications for military actions, especially inside theaters like Syria, where Congress has not explicitly authorized any American military action.”
Citizens have also vocalized their concerns about President Biden potentially abusing his executive powers and dismissing the system of checks and balances.
A bill aiming to strip the president’s war powers by repealing authorizations for use of military force in the Middle East has been proposed in a bipartisan effort in the wake of growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran, which were exacerbated by the U.S. airstrikes earlier this month.
The proposal is headed by Senators Kaine and Todd Young (R-Ind.) and comes after legislators, including fellow Democrats, criticized Biden for taking unilateral military action against Syria by authorizing airstrikes on alleged Iran-backed militias in the region without legal justification or the approval of Congress.
“Last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the executive branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers,” Kaine said, according to Politico.
“Congress has a responsibility to not only vote to authorize new military action, but to repeal old authorizations that are no longer necessary,” he continued.
The authorizations for use of military force in the Middle East were passed during flashpoints of U.S. military intervention in the region. In 1991, The George H.W. Bush Administration pushed a resolution through the United Nations Security Council authorizing the use of military force against Iraq and setting the stage for the Gulf War.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an authorization for the use of military force was passed through Congress, resulting in the invasion of Afghanistan just weeks later. In 2002, Congress passed another resolution, which authorized the use of military force against Iraq once again. This was used as justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a conflict that has a direct link to the present-day instability in the region.
“Congress has been operating on autopilot when it comes to our essential duties to authorize the use of military force,” Young said in the Politico piece. “The fact that authorities for both of these wars are still law today is illustrative of the bipartisan failure of Congress to perform its constitutionally-mandated oversight role.”
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have bypassed Congress by exercising unilateral Executive powers in authorizing military force against foreign targets. President Barack Obama did so in 2011 by authorizing airstrikes against Libya; President Donald Trump also used his presidential powers to attack Syrian military targets in 2017. The irony is that the same resolutions that Congress helped pass and set the precedent for contemporary U.S. military interventions are now being used to side-step legislative approval for these incursions.
In a letter to Congressional leaders on Feb. 27, President Biden justified the Syrian airstrikes as self-defense in response to attacks on U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors in Erbil, Iraq in which one service member died and four civilians were wounded.
“[…] I directed this military action to protect and defend our personnel and our partners against these attacks and future such attacks. The United States always stands ready to take necessary and proportionate action in self-defense, including when, as is the case here, the government of the state where the threat is located is unwilling or unable to prevent the use of its territory by non-state militia groups responsible for such attacks,” read the letter signed by President Biden.
While there have been efforts to repeal these presidential war powers in the past, the escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran have made the issue more pressing for legislators. A bipartisan group of legislators has sponsored the bill proposed by Kaine and Young, including Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
President Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East has faced scrutiny from fellow Democrats, including California Rep. Ro Khanna, who has been outspoken about the Biden Administration’s soft stance on Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salam, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Gabriella Garcia is originally from the Bay Area, California, and is completing her fourth year at UC Davis as a Political Science major and Professional Writing minor.
Josué Monroy is a 4th year International Relations major at UC Davis. He is from Santa Cruz, CA.