The United States, at the direction of President Trump, launched 59 ground-strike Tomahawk missiles from two destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea against an airbase controlled by the Syrian government. This was a retaliation for the Syrian government’s slaughter of civilians with a chemical weapon earlier this week. Here are eight analyses:
Analysis One: Promise Broken?
While he was on the campaign trail, and even back into 2013, Donald Trump had railed against the United States’ decisions to get involved in ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. While his main criticism was against the intervention in Iraq, Mr. Trump had strongly stated his opposition to taking action in Syria. This was a split from general Republican orthodoxy over the use of American hard-power abroad and the sense that the nation is a “global force for good.”
Is the launching of a surgical strike against chemical weapons production and distribution logistics in Syria a broken promise? Yes, in the strictest terms. However, it’s also a bit of the “only Nixon can go to China” sort of situation. Mr. Trump, at least as of the time of writing, is not advocating a larger scale intervention in Syria, nor is he proposing the committal of ground forces to remove Syrian Dictator Bashar Assad from power. Rather, the proverbial “punishment fit the crime.” In this case, Syria used chemical weapons and the United States eliminated future capacity for the use of chemical weapons (could Assad have more chemical weapons stored? He most certainly could and probably does. However, does he want to risk a more forceful United States response for those actions?).
In effect, what Mr. Trump has attempted, and as of the “morning after,” succeeded in doing, is threading the needle of proportional response. The attack was carried out in the dead of night against a valid target (the airbase that was used to launch the chemical weapons attack) and surgical in nature. Yes, this was a violation of the national sovereignty of Syria and a use of the oft-maligned War Powers Act. Sure, the threat posed against Americans or American interests was, at best, very tangential to the strike. However, the actual scope of the attack was limited, directed at the exact culprit, and measured.
Analysis Two: The Chinese Story
The missiles landed in Syria at 8:40pm Eastern. This was almost, to-the-minute, at the time the President was concluding his first day of talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping who is visiting Mr. Trump at the latter’s resort in Mar-a-Lago. This is either a total an unplanned coincidence, or a clear and definitive statement about American power and determination.
Mr. Trump is widely regarded as a skilled negotiator. His talks with President Xi are high-level and extremely fraught with pitfalls. The one thing that Mr. Trump cannot appear to be is weak. This was the perception of the previous Administration on almost every front. Knowing that a cruise missile strike is underway as you’re having dinner with the second-most-powerful leader in the world is an expression of American authority.
More to the point: this is a warning to China over North Korea. The Administration, through its surrogates have been clear that the United States is willing, though it’s not the preferred scenario, to “go it alone” over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missile capabilities. North Korea is a far larger threat to the United States and its allies than Syria. The decision to strike Syria in order to remove a threat is a signal that the United States is not going to hesitate in what it sees as its national security interests.
The message to China will be received loud and clear: help the United States to curtail North Korean aggression, or the United States will take action to do it itself.
Analysis Three: Trump’s Taste of the War Media
If anyone was surprised by the President ordering strikes in Syria, they probably hadn’t been watching the news for the last few days. It was immediately clear in a press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah that the President was going to respond forcefully to President Assad’s decision to launch a chemical weapons attack against his own citizens.
Despite some libertarian outrage (hint: there’s always going to be libertarian outrage—rightly or wrongly) and pearl-clutching from the hard-left, the President took decisive action. Without drifting too far into the macabre, this was also a very big public relations win for the President.
The President has had a love-hate (but mostly hate) relationship with large swaths of the American media establishment. In the hours following the chemical weapons strike, most of the American media, despite having a leftward-bent, were expressing shock and horror at the pictures coming out of Syria and were urging some kind of response to the attack.
With no disrespect meant to the President, he is a showman. This was his first real chance to put on his commander-in-chief hat and take a military action that would be nearly universally praised. Again, despite pearl-clutching, there’s no real expectation of escalation over the attack. This was a clear and direct message from the President that was related to the use of chemical weapons by Assad. This will be seen, for the most part, as a humanitarian action that was limited in scope.
Without diving down the rabbit hole of future conflicts, this was also a clear test-run for future actions by the Trump Administration against rogue states. In an Administration that has been criticized for not having its “act together” with regard to policy positions, this strike was a test to make sure everyone was on-message and how the media would respond. Outside of Secretary Tillerson’s overly-bellicose assertion that the United States now supported “regime change” in Syria, all of the principals, from the President to Ambassador Haley to Secretary Mattis spoke with one voice and stayed firmly in-line.
Analysis Four: Red Lines Reestablished
The President has long-blamed the crisis in Syria on President Obama’s failure and indecision with regard to his “red line” declaration in 2012. In 2013, when President Assad used chemical weapons and killed approximately 1,400 citizens, the United States (admittedly war-weary and not interested in another entangling affair in the Middle East) took no action. Obama had sought Congressional approval for airstrikes, but there was significant pushback and the idea was dropped.
Despite the widespread opposition to Obama taking action in Syria, the decision, while popular, was seen as a total failure in the United States’ ability to project power around the world. Obama had made a line in the sand, and then had been challenged on it. Obama blinked and the massacres continued.
As we discussed at the time, this failure by Obama emboldened Russian adventurism in Ukraine and Syria. While it would be inappropriate to assert that Russian actors had ordered one or both chemical attacks to test American resolve, the reality is that Obama declined to enforce the red line and Trump chose to enforce it. It’s an interesting reversal for both men. Obama, who had made the empty threat and Trump, the reluctant warrior.
The message: America is going to follow through on its threats, if we make them. We do not want to go to war or use force, but you should listen if we make the threat.
Analysis Five: A Cold Spring in Moscow
The breathless coverage from anti-Trump news outlets like CNN for months has centered on the boogeyman of Russian collusion with members of the Trump team. While that investigation is ongoing (despite there being no real evidence of any impropriety), President Trump took action in direct contravention of the will of the Kremlin. The storyline of the secret control of the White House by Vladimir Putin really seems to fall apart when the President of the United States decides to attack Putin’s biggest ally in the Middle East.
Trump has long-asserted that he would like to get along with Putin. More than this, Trump’s admiration of Putin seems to originate from Putin being a decisive world leader. While this has sometimes come off to Trump’s detractors as a tacit support of authoritarianism, it’s more an appreciation of leadership qualities. While on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump said that he’d like to get along with Mr. Putin, but, if that didn’t happen, he would understand. The strike in Syria is a clear signal that Trump’s leadership style, or at least his decisiveness, leaves little to the imagination.
Analysis Six: A Warning to the UN
If there was a “first warning sign” that the United States was going to take military action against Syria, it was Ambassador Nikki Haley’s presentation to the UN Security Council in which she strongly condemned Syrian atrocities and chided the body for not taking definitive action. The United Nations has long been criticized for its dithering over important issues as well as its rewarding tyrants and autocrats with positions of authority.
President Trump and Ambassador Haley have, clearly, not always seen eye-to-eye (especially during the campaign). However, on the response to Syria, there was a clear, well-oiled, machine on display. The United States made its case, despite the protestations of Russia. When it became clear that the United Nations would take no definitive action, the United States moved to act on its own to eliminate a threat. This type of movement would have been unthinkable in the previous Administration. Obama was widely-criticized for being paralyzed with fear over what other nations would think and how polls would react to taking foreign policy actions.
Analysis Seven: Listener-in-Chief
One of the attacks on Donald Trump that is least-credible is the assertion that Mr. Trump will just fly off at the handle and do whatever he wants to do. This goes against Mr. Trump’s statements on the campaign trail, and now, against direct evidence. It’s no secret that the President is not a master of foreign policy, or, for that matter, has much in terms of understanding of history and current cultural climates around the world. This isn’t meant as a condemnation of the man, but rather, the geopolitical and military strategies with respect to Syria would not have been top priorities for the CEO of the Trump Corporation.
There was a fear that Mr. Trump would follow his gut and take action without consulting policy experts. The opposite has wound up being true. The President appears to have consulted with, and was fully briefed, by the relevant personnel. He made his decision out of a list of potential plans. He acted to limit civilian, and even military, casualties. In effect, the operation went smoothly and was executed correctly.
This strike was also a test of the President’s “I’m not going to tell you what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it” military strategy. This has the effect of de-politicizing the strike and not forecasting to America’s enemies where a strike may hit.
Analysis Eight: “Believe Me.”
President Trump’s oft-repeated refrain on the campaign trail and since he took office has been “Believe Me.” While there are some valid criticisms of the President that have arisen during the first few months of his Administration, one of the least-credible is that the President is a “liar.” To the complete contrary, President Trump has been wholly transparent about his thought process and has attempted to keep his campaign promises.
When the President was speaking in the Rose Garden and noted that President Assad had crossed “many lines,” there was no doubt that the United States would be taking action. While in the complex “Concert of Europe”-style diplomacy circles, Mr. Trump’s bluntness has been lampooned or aped as buffoonery, it’s actually a completely valid form of international policy. Mr. Trump is honest. He will, very clearly, make his opinions known. While this is sometimes less-than-effective at smoothing over relationships, the idea that the President is “not bluffing” when it comes to the use of hard power puts steel in the use of soft power.
In any future conflicts or foreign policy crises, other leaders will know that the President of the United States isn’t pursing a secret agenda or is unwilling to follow-through on promises. Rather, Mr. Trump is committed to what he says he’s going to do. This is refreshing and could actually prevent wars in the future. Believe me.