- Biden is facing questioning from both sides of the aisle about airstrikes conducted in Syria.
- Thursday’s airstrikes were conducted against Iran-backed militias in response to recent attacks.
- Some lawmakers are questioning the legality of the strikes, though others expressed support.
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President Joe Biden is facing questions from Congress about his decision to carry out airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria, specifically regarding his authority to conduct this move.
On Thursday, Biden directed airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militias operating just across the Iraqi border in Syria in response to a series of recent attacks against US and coalition forces in Iraq as well as other persistent threats, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The airstrikes came a little over a week after a deadly attack in which a barrage of rockets were fired at coalition forces stationed outside Irbil International Airport, killing a US-led coalition contractor and wounding a US service member, among others.
The retaliatory strike option Biden picked was selected as a “middle” option from among a wide range of possible responses, a senior defense official told Politico. US fighter aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs on a total of seven targets.
The Department of Defense said that Thursday’s airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities” at a border control point used by Iran-backed militias like Kait’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada and Kait’ib Hezbollah, the latter of which was held responsible for a deadly attack in December 2019 that set in motion events that ultimately triggered a dangerous escalation of tensions with Iran.
The airstrikes were focused on operational infrastructure, the aim being the prevention of future attacks, and were not intended to inflict significant casualties.
The department stated that the strikes, which it considered "proportionate," sent an "unambiguous message" that "Biden will act to protect American and Coalition personnel."
'Strikes without Congressional authorization'
Lawmakers from both parties are openly questioning the legality of the strikes and the general wisdom behind them.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Americans deserve to know the "rationale" for the strikes and the "legal justification without coming to Congress."
Kaine added: "Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances."
Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted: "We ran on ending wars, not escalating conflicts in the Middle East. Our foreign policy needs to be rooted in diplomacy & the rule of law, not retaliatory air strikes without Congressional authorization."
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, in a statement acknowledged that "the president unquestionably has the right to defend our nation and our forces from imminent attack."
He argued, though, that such "retaliatory strikes, not necessary to prevent an imminent threat, must fall within the definition of an existing congressional authorization of military force." Murphy said that Congress should demand "clear legal justifications for military action," just as it did for past administrations.
And Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, known for being staunchly opposed to intervention, condemned the strike as an attack on "a sovereign nation without authority."
"What authority does @POTUS have to strike Syria?" Paul tweeted. Pointing to White House press secretary Jen Psaki's previous questioning on social media of the Trump administration's military actions in Syria, he suggested someone now ask her the same.
'Inherent self-defense powers enshrined in our Constitution'
A National Security Council spokesperson told Insider that the White House "had a rigorous process to include legal review of the strikes conducted."
"The president acted pursuant to inherent self-defense powers enshrined in our Constitution and the UN Charter," the spokesperson said. "As a matter of domestic law, the President took this action pursuant to his Article II authority to defend US personnel."
Article II of the US Constitution designates the president as the commander-in-chief of the US military, and multiple administrations have taken actions based on a broad interpretation of this.
The spokesperson said the strikes were "necessary to address the threat and proportionate to the prior attacks," and in accordance with the right to self-defense under international law.
Thursday's strikes, the first highly publicized military action under Biden, came amid growing calls in Congress for presidential war powers to be reined in, including the president's authority to use nuclear weapons.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed laws that have offered every president since broad authority to wage war around the world. These laws - the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) - paved the way for the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and over the years the 2001 AUMF has been used by multiple presidents to justify at least 41 military operations in 19 countries.
After then-President Donald Trump ordered a controversial drone strike that killed Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, in early January 2020, congressional lawmakers from both parties moved to constrain his war powers.
Later that month, the House passed a resolution to repeal the 2002 AUMF, and Kaine sponsored a resolution to prevent Trump from taking military action against Iran without congressional approval that passed in both chambers but was ultimately vetoed.
Former President Barack Obama also faced bipartisan disapproval over his approach to counterterrorism, particularly his reliance on drone strikes.
The Obama administration was criticized for conducting drone strikes on dubious legal grounds, taking out suspected terrorists in countries with which the US is not technically at war, such as Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. Obama also controversially ordered a drone strike that killed a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen.
Though there's an expanding congressional movement to limit presidential war powers, Biden also received some bipartisan support for the Syria strikes.
For instance, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House majority leader, argued that the strikes demonstrated Biden's "resolve to prevent Iran from targeting America's personnel and allies with impunity," stating that "it was a strong act that will surely send a message to Tehran that our country will not abide destabilizing actions from its forces or its proxies."
Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, among some other GOP members, said that the Biden administration was "right to make clear that attacks on American personnel will not go unanswered."