100 Days: Trump and Syria
We know why Trump ordered the airstrike in Syria. How he reached that decision, and our reaction to it, terrifies me.
Fareed Zakaria recently referred to President Trump’s order to strike a Syrian airfield as the moment “that he became President.” Such praise is gratuitous and a clumsy attempt by another CNN star to write history on-air. However, the sentiment beneath that catchphrase is logical — bombing other countries counts as Presidential in America. For better or worse, every President since World War II has embraced our role as a hegemon and ordered military assaults abroad. While President Trump routinely defies convention and breaks with precedent, his airstrike in Syria is probably the most traditional act of his young presidency.
We know why Trump ordered the airstrike. The Syrian regime bombed civilians for the umpteenth time. The only difference in the maiming and slaughter in this instance, was the weapon.
Chemical weapons have been identified as particularly inhumane since World War I and the international community (with strong U.S. backing) has outlawed the weapons and sought to reduce existing stockpiles. It’s in the interest of the United States, and its partners, to do so. Enforcing this norm of warfare reduces the incentive for adversaries to stockpile chemical weapons, which in turn reduces the risk that those weapons could be used on U.S. troops or citizens abroad. By bombing a Syrian airfield with 59 cruise missiles (retail price of about $1 million per missile), Trump reinforced this international rule of warfare.
Now, aSyrian man or woman, whose community has been barrel bombed by the Assad regime, could conceivably shrug at this consensus. A regime can slaughter its citizens with conventional munitions but chemical weapons are more abhorrent and will carry repercussions? Whatever my answer is to that contradiction — it’s surely beyond my ability to concisely communicate in a Medium Post.
Nevertheless, Trump’s decision to retaliate against the regime aligns with American foreign policy precedent and even with his overarching “America First” Doctrine. But his actions contradict specific statements by him and his administration. Before the attack Trump and his Secretary of State dropped the Obama Administration’s insistence that Syrian President Assad must relinquish control of the country. The American administration seemed far more interested in combatting ISIS and resetting relations with Russia. The slaughter of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere was did not directly affect U.S. interests — in their view.
Then Syrian planes chemical bombed a civilian population. Horrifying photos showed dead children — they shocked the world, they shocked Donald Trump. 48 hours later, Trump ordered the strike.
For comparison— from the start of protests in Libya in 2011, it took a month for the U.S. and European allies to strike Gaddafi forces. Trump’s policy of avoiding a Syria intervention crumbled in just 2 days. As I said at the start of this article, bombing the Syrians was a pretty conventional act. But that decision contradicted everything that Trump had stated about Syria and Assad for the past two years. We do not know how Trump arrived at the decision to reverse policy and use force. What ideology or precedent guided him? Was this just the end result of his emotional reaction to reviewing photos and evidence of the chemical attack? We don’t know and that scares me.
Unmoored from any guiding principle or strategy, President Trump is completely willing to throw out yesterday’s policy for today’s gut feeling.
At this point, it seems that Trump’s narrow action in Syria will not precipitate a prolonged American offensive in the region, but larger threats lay ahead of us. The Syria incident shows that President Trump is completely unmoored from any guiding principle or strategy. He is completely willing to throw out yesterday’s policy for today’s gut feeling. How can he, or his administration, successfully deal with issues like North Korea if priorities follow the emotional zig-zag of our chief executive.
Oh, and do you want to know what the scariest part of this airstrike is? Trump’s poll numbers improved, albeit temporarily, after the airstrike. Obsessed with his own popularity and ratings, President trump now has an incentive to use military force without a longterm strategy. As courts reverse executive orders and Congress fails to pass meaningful legislation, how many domestic failures will President Trump tolerate before he looks to use the military to help his approval ratings?