© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Week In Politics: U.S. Airstrike Against Syria, Gorsuch Confirmed


I'm Robert Siegel with a look back at the week's big political developments. Last night's cruise missile strike marked a new step in U.S.-Syria policy. The Trump administration says it restored vigor and credibility to U.S. foreign policy in general. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, implicitly contrasted the U.S. today and the U.S. under President Obama.


NIKKI HALEY: The United States will no longer wait for Assad to use chemical weapons without any consequences. Those days are over.

SIEGEL: Many senators, like Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, expressed approval of the strikes but spoke of the need for Congress to be consulted.


TIM KAINE: A president is not supposed to initiate war without a vote of Congress, and a military action, a missile strike against a sovereign nation is an act of war.

SIEGEL: While the Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, when asked about a new authorization of the use of military force, sounded indifferent.


MITCH MCCONNELL: If the president can think of some AUMF that he thinks strengthens his hand, I'd be happy to take a look at it.

SIEGEL: So we've got lots to discuss with our political observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and The Brookings Institution. Hi, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And joining us from New York this week, David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi.


SIEGEL: Let's start with E.J. President Donald Trump staged airstrikes - launched airstrikes. Has he restored a useful measure of force to U.S. policy that was missing under President Obama?

DIONNE: Well, I don't think we know where this leads yet. I think that what struck me about the last week is that we still don't have any idea what the Trump foreign policy is like. Very recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of Bashar al-Assad - well, that decision is up to the Syrian people...

SIEGEL: Whether he remains president.

DIONNE: Yes, as if 4 million refugees can vote in some free election. And I think that could have been an inadvertent green light to some kind of operation like the heinous chemical attack that he undertook. So now - then you had Nikki Haley who is speaking a very different tones about Assad. And now you have Trump completely reversing himself.

So I think what's striking here is that on the strikes themselves, Trump is getting a lot of cross-partisan support. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leaders, broadly supported the strikes. But the question is, where does Trump go from here? And his foreign policy has been - and I think this is charitable - so confusing that we don't know what steps he's going to take next or how Russia and Iran fit in with what he's trying to do in Syria.

SIEGEL: David, does the airstrike and, perhaps, also the removal of Trump adviser Steve Bannon from the National Security Council - do those things make the Trump administration look more like a conventional Republican administration than a mold-breaking, nationalist America-first administration?

BROOKS: Possibly. I'm not quite ready to go there yet. First, I do think the strikes were a good thing. I mean, it's 100 years from World War I, and the near elimination of use of chemical weapons since then is a great achievement for human civilization. And it's worth it that America should stand up for enforcing those norms, which President Obama was unwilling to do. So I, too, think it was a good thing.

Are we seeing a more normal Republican administration where the U.S. serves as sort of the global keeper of the order? You do see the emergence of General Mattis, of H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson playing more prominent roles at least in Middle East policy. And never before has Steve Bannon reportedly been in so much bad odor with the president, even his possible removal. And so there is some gestures toward that norm.

But it would take a lot, I think, to persuade us that this is an administration not marked mostly by impulsivity and a lack of attention span. So until we see an actual strategy, until we see actual people appointed to the positions of policymaking in the foreign policy apparatus at the deputy level, I think it's much too early to say we're seeing a shift toward something normal.

SIEGEL: What about the role of Congress, E.J.? U.S. actions in the region have been justified for years by an authorization of military force that goes way back to 9/11. You can argue that the so-called Islamic State in Syria is a descendent of al-Qaida, but the Syrian government isn't. It's a foreign power. Should Congress be involved in authorizing actions against it?

DIONNE: The answer is yes, and I think Congress itself has punted over a long period of time on this. President Obama - and I personally think he would have been better off to enforce his redline. But he made a point that he wanted congressional approval and a new authorization before he went to war. Congress wouldn't do it.

It is significant that there are many Republicans out there who supported Trump who opposed a strike by Obama, by the way, including Donald Trump himself. But Congress should have the guts to step up, have a debate and say here is what we think our policy in Syria should be. I hope this action creates pressure on Congress to do that. But you played that clip from Mitch McConnell. I think they'd much rather not do anything at all.

SIEGEL: Is that it, David, that you think many members of Congress would rather not be forced to vote on something like this?

BROOKS: For sure. This is a melodrama that's been going on since I was in knee breeches. You know, the president - some president, whether it's Reagan or anybody since, feels they have to take some sort of immediate action. They take the action. A few members of Congress complain, and they say the law says you have to consult with us. And nominally they're right.

But in real time, the president just doesn't have time to go to Congress to take this sort of action. And so we've settled on a policy or, really, a pattern, which is if we're undertaking some sort of long-term military effort like the Iraq war, we should go to Congress. But strikes like this, whether it was President Clinton going into Iraq with the Tomahawks or something like this, the Congress just doesn't have time to be consulted.

DIONNE: Right. But I don't think that's what the issue here is. I think the issue here is that this could well signal a change in policy. And people as different in their views as John McCain and Tim Kaine have gotten together to say Congress needs to declare itself and that the old resolutions don't do it.

This is - unless this is purely a one-off, which with the Trump administration, you can't tell, I think Congress should debate and take a stand and that it shouldn't try to chicken out and then be able to blame whoever's in power if things go wrong.

BROOKS: The question would be, what is the strategy? Do we have a regime-change strategy? Well, if we've got that, then surely Congress should be involved. But I don't see anybody who really believes in that.

SIEGEL: Want to leave a minute for a story that but for the airstrikes would be dominating this conversation - the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch that entailed changing Senate rules. Yesterday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said this.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Today's vote is a cautionary tale about how unbridled partisan escalation can ultimately overwhelm our basic inclination to work together and frustrate our efforts to pull back, blocking us from steering the ship of the Senate away from the rocks.

SIEGEL: Schumer went on to say that in 40 years, we'll look back on this week as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court and not a good one. Is it that big a deal, E.J.?

DIONNE: Oh, I think it's a big deal. I think it's a sad day because conservatives grab back their dominance on the court by refusing to give even a hearing to President Obama's nominee Merrick Garland. So I think every 5-4 conservative decision going forward now will carry a taint. And, you know, you had the conservative court insert itself into partisan politics over and over again - Bush v. Gore, then Citizens United, then gutting the Voting Rights Act. So I think this filibuster was inevitable. Getting rid of the filibuster, overall, is not a terrible thing. But I think this whole court fight is a dangerous and bad thing for the country.

SIEGEL: And David Brooks, you have the last word and not a very long one.

BROOKS: It's the 931st nail in the end of bipartisanship. So it is sad. It's also a day for awesome hypocrisy since the Democrats took a major step in ending this, too.

SIEGEL: OK, that's David Brooks of The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Thanks to both of you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "GOLDEN LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.