US Interventionism in Syria: Foreign Policy Guided by National PR

The chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, which killed more than 70 people, seems to have triggered a complete reversal in American foreign policy. First, Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian government target in retaliation of the attack. Then, in a week, Assad became a bloodthirsty tyrant, China could be an ally against North Korea and NATO is not so useless, after all.

The US is reverting to its traditional foreign policy: interventionism. What made Trump leave his isolationist stance?

Trump’s first reason for bombarding Syria’s military base was to defend innocent civilians. The chemical attack triggered an emotional response and made him undergo humanitarian action. By definition, humanitarian intervention means launching a military action against a country in view of ending a human rights’ violation.

Unfortunately, Syria’s dire human rights situation does not date from April 2017. “Beautiful babies” have been dying for the last six years — 55,000 children lost their lives according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights.

Since the conflict started, Trump railed against American intervention in the Middle East. “We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with”, he told a large crowd near the Fort Bragg military base last December, encapsulating his non-interventionist policy. He vociferously criticized the possibility of Obama intervening in Syria in 2013 after it suffered its first chemical attack.

If the intervention was solely done for humanitarian reasons, well, Trump would have shown his soft-side earlier.

Something must have happened so that the US administration, which became ardently non-interventionist, bombed a country without the consent of international law or Congress.

Here comes Trump’s second justification for the missile strike: “vital national security interest”.

National interest is a floating concept, blown around by changing winds. And the wind has changed — albeit not so much in Syria, but in the US.

Up until April 7, 2017, the American inaction against Assad’s government was to deliberately avoid direct confrontation with Syria’s official authorities — and therefore stay clear of the Russians, who have become the major foreign player in the Middle East. For six years, the costs outweighed the benefits of risking friction with Russia and national security did not seem at stake.

If the intervention was done solely for the sake of national security, well, the US would have intervened earlier. Today, taking the risk of conflict with Russia seems worth it. Why is that?

The US president is tangled in poor popularity scores.

The FBI is currently running three separate investigations over allegations of Russian interference with the US presidential election. Two concern the hacking of the opposing party’s computer systems and the third is about the suspected links between Trump’s campaign allies and Russia. Congress launched its own inspections.

What better way to deter national suspicion of a Russia-Trump collusion than to directly attack Putin’s protégé? The timing seems right to portray a transparent relation between the US administration and Russia — or that America is not Russia’s puppet. It gives a sense of familiarity to those who lived through the Cold War — attacking a third country to destabilize the larger one? Calling on civilized nations to join the fight for good? Ah, America is back in the fight against evil.

This also resolves another issue. Trump’s first policy attempts have collapsed. The ban on immigration was blocked by legal forces and the reform of America’s healthcare system failed to yield support from his own party. Trump has been portrayed not only as a soulless leader, but an ineffective one as well.

But by advocating for the “children of God”, Trump became a good Samaritan. Trump assailed a barbaric dictatorship overnight to attempt to rule out his second public affairs obstacle. For a cost half a $ billion for 59 Tomahawk missiles, the US administration hopes to reinvigorate Trump’s popularity rate, which have reached record lows. The military strike was well received by European countries and leaders as well as by national military experts, giving Trump an aura of goodwill and strategic military thinking.

In attacking Syria, Trump also showed that he is distancing himself from Steve Bannon, current White House Chief Strategist and voice of white nationalism and isolationism, and embracing a more traditional US role.

Humanitarian and national security are arguments that would have worked if used earlier in the Syrian conflict. In April 2017, I would argue that the prime reason for Trump’s intervention in Syria was a matter of fixing presidential PR by way of distancing himself from Putin and Bannon.

Context: On Tuesday, April 4, 2017, a chemical attack was targeted against civilians in the village Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. It killed 74 people, including 30 children. On Friday of the same week, the US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles from its Mediterranean base at the Syrian airbase from where the chemical attack was presumably sent.

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