Sen. Angus King of Maine questioned Friday whether the Trump administration has a clear strategy on Syria and called on the White House to engage with Congress should the president choose to pursue a deeper, more active role in the country’s civil war.
Maine’s independent senator made his comments a day after President Trump launched the United States’ first direct strike against the government of Bashar Assad since the conflict began six years ago.
King, speaking after a classified briefing with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles has been framed as a one-time response to the Assad government’s use of suspected chemical weapons against civilians this week, killing at least 86 people, including children.
King is skeptical that Trump and his advisers have a clear vision for addressing Syria moving forward.
“I don’t think they do have a strategy, and, in fact, 24 hours before this attack, there was an expressed statement that we weren’t focused on Assad, that we were focused on ISIS,” King said during a news conference held after he landed at the Portland International Jetport on Friday evening.
“This attack responded to a specific use of chemical weapons, not for disposing of Assad or regime change. What the ongoing strategy of the White House will be, I don’t think we know. I don’t think they know.”
King said the launch of the missiles, which targeted the air base connected to the bombing mission that dropped the suspected nerve agent, was “probably legal” as a one-time response. But he said further use of the 2001 authorization for the use of military force approved by Congress to pursue Al-Qaida in the days after the attacks of Sept. 11 may be a stretch.
“When you start focusing on a government of a country, which is a sovereign country, then you get into the difficulty of what is the legal authority, both under international law and our law,” King said.
He believes that expanding troop deployment in the country beyond the roughly 500 special forces soldiers there now would be a big mistake.
“The Syrian civil war is horribly complex, incredibly dangerous and damaging, and to enter into that war on one side or the other would be very difficult for us to find the right place to be engaged.”
Many Republicans, including Trump before he was president or even a candidate, opposed military intervention in Syria back in 2013 when similar chemical attacks were carried out. The use of chemical weapons is a violation of an international treaty known as the Geneva Protocol and the practice has been routinely condemned.
Trump warned then-President Obama that attacking Syria was a bad idea.
“President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sept. 7, 2013.
The U.S. did not attack then and instead worked with Russia in an attempt to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Trump’s decision to retaliate has been seen by some as a break from the nationalist and even isolationist “America first” rhetoric that helped get him elected.
King’s position is roughly in line with those of the other three members of the congressional delegation, who each in separate statements said they approved of the president’s use of force in this instance, but urged future engagement with representatives if the U.S. is to expand its role in the region.
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation deemed Thursday’s cruise missile attack against Syria as appropriate and proportional, but several expressed concerns about what could potentially happen next, and said the president needs to get the input of Congress and U.S. allies.
Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the cruise missiles were a swift action that sends a strong message to Assad and others. In a telephone interview Friday afternoon, the Republican said she did not believe the attack constituted an act of war.
“If the president is planning further military action, he needs to consult with Congress, but I felt this was a swift, justifiable response to use of an illegal nerve agent,” she said.
Collins said it was premature for her to say what should happen next.
“We should be consulting with allies and the (United Nations), but that in large measure depends on what the administration’s plans are on this. This may have been a one-time strike to send a message.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-2nd District, agreed that the United States was right to retaliate against the Syrian government for chemical attacks on its people this week.
Pingree, in a telephone interview Friday afternoon, said she doesn’t necessarily view Thursday’s strike as an act of war, but said Congress needs to have a debate over the future use of military force in Syria.
“It’s hard to say, ‘Yes, let’s put boots on the ground,’ without a debate or without asking, ‘What are the diplomatic plans?’” she said. “All these questions have to be raised and it would give us a chance to have this conversation before the public.”
Pingree also said she was confused about the sudden shift in approach from the Trump administration. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson essentially said that what was happening in Syria was not the United States’ problem.
Late Thursday, after the strikes, Trump said the actions had “crossed a line.”
“For me, one of the most difficult things is to hear the president say ‘I was moved to do this because of compassion for the (Syrian) people,’ yet the same president being completely unwilling to let the same people into this country,” Pingree said.
Poliquin, in a statement, called the response swift and appropriate while also urging Trump to work with Congress going forward. He did not respond to follow-up questions.
“If the president moves to take further action, the administration must work and consult with Congress on a comprehensive plan for the crisis in the region,” Poliquin said in a statement. “Syria has become more than just an internal civil war, with the involvement of ISIS and other bad actors in the region.”
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