Yesterday the United States of America attacked Syria. The attack was limited to an air force base. It was the Trump administration’s response to Syrian President Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people.
I have some initial thoughts about this.
ASSAD’S USE OF CHEMICAL WEAPONS
We are not certain that Assad ordered the chemical weapons attack on his own people. Some people have suggested that one of the rebel factions is responsible. Or ISIS. Or … any number of usual suspects. But it is most likely that Assad ordered the attack. I’m assuming for the purpose of this article that he did.
Was it justified? My gut reaction is to say, “Of course not. Nothing can justify his use of weapons of mass destruction against his own people.” But … this is difficult … it may have seemed justifiable, indeed necessary, to Assad. He is engaged in a civil war that threatens to topple his regime. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in this war, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced to refugee camps as they flee for their lives. Many of those people are fleeing to Europe and the United States. The Assad regime is surviving only because of Russian and Iranian help. In desperate times, people to desperate things. Assad is getting desperate.
Does this justify Assad’s use of chemical weapons? No, it does not. But it does remind us that this event did not occur in isolation; it is part of a much larger historical and political context. Any response to it has to be a response to the whole picture, not to an isolated part of it. Otherwise we are just blundering around blindly hitting a enemies real and perceived.
President Trump responded by hitting one of Assad’s air force bases with more than fifty Tomahawk missile fired from two destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea. It was a measured and proportionate response. But it was done wrong and will have some negative consequences.
It is problematic, and possibly illegal, that our President unilaterally ordered an attack on a foreign nation that has never attacked us and does not present any near-term threat to us, and that he did so apparently without Congressional approval or even notification. This likely violates the Constitution that he is sworn to uphold. According to the Constitution, only Congress can declare war; the President does not have that right, although there is an exception.
The exception is a “clear and present” danger. Were this a response to a clear and present threat to the United States, at home or abroad, there would not time for the President to seek Congressional approval. In that case, the President’s action might be appropriate, although even then one would expect him to at least notify Congress.
But Trump’s response wasn’t a response to any clear and present threat to the United States or to any of our allies. It was Trump’s response to a moral dilemma that seems to demand some kind of response, but to which there are no clear responses. This, of course, is true more often than not in a complex world with intractable problems that admit to no easy solutions. Under pressure to do something, he ordered up some missile strikes.
IS TRUMP TAKING US INTO ANOTHER WAR?
This also begs the question, Is the President taking us into a war against Syria. If so, there are some things he needs to explain to the American people. Why are we doing this? Does this mean we have decided to formally take a side in Syria’s civil war? If so, what did Trump mean when he said we should stay out of Syria? And what did Secretary of State Tillerson mean when he assured Assad last week that regime change is no longer the policy of the United States? Did Assad take that to mean he didn’t have to worry about an American response to his use of chemical weapons? After all, we didn’t respond last time (yes, that was Obama’s bad).
How exactly will this attack make the situation in Syria better? It might discourage Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, but will it stop the barrel bombs and bombardments of civilian targets? Will it bring us any closer to a negotiated settlement?
What exactly is the goal? A one-off slap on Assad’s hand? Or the opening shot of a larger engagement? What is our plan if Assad strikes back at US targets in the Middle East? What is our plan if Russia, Assad’s ally, responds militarily by, say, bombing Syrian rebel targets? At the very least, we can expect some diplomatic fallout, especially from Russia. Will they use this as an excuse to increase their military presence in Syria?
If we are going to war, what is the mission? What is the end game? What is our exit strategy? If we have learned anything from wars such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, it is surely that we have to have clear answers to the questions before we start a war.
WHAT IS OUR POLICY IN SYRIA?
This is where a coherent and carefully thought out foreign policy is critical. Unfortunately, President Trump has no coherent foreign policy, let alone a policy specific to the Syrian civil war. At least none that anybody in the administration has articulated. Nor does he have anyone around him who can produce such a policy. Certainly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not qualified, and that is usually where such policy thinking comes from. So Trump responded as he often does by lashing out, devoid of any historical or political context, and apparently without any awareness of the possible consequences. We are now waiting to see what those consequences will be.
It may be that Trump wasn’t thinking strategically, but was merely trying to demonstrate that he can act decisively and with strength in the face of an international crisis. The missile strike does communicate a message: “There’s a new sheriff in town. If you act badly enough, I’m gonna come over there and slap you up one side of your head and down the other.” Which brings me to my third point.
IS AMERICA THE WORLD’S POLICEMAN?
Is America the world’s policemen, the enforcer of right in a world of wrongs. Nothing Trump said during the campaign or since carried any hint that he wants American to be the world’s policeman. On the contrary, he has repeatedly spoken against that understanding of our place in the world. What is “America First” if not a call to disengagement and isolationism*. Yet here he have President Trump ordering an unprovoked attack on a foreign nation because they are behaving badly.
This attack on Syria demonstrates that “America First” apparently means, at least in some cases, “America Alone.” Included in this is the notion that we are not predictable. Sometimes we will respond to bad behavior with bombs. Other times we will rant and rave but not actually do anything. President Trump pretends that this is a good thing, but it’s not. Without a coherent, articulated foreign policy, all it means is that we are capricious, unreliable, and erratic. The message so far is: Whatever you do, don’t push Donald Trump into a corner, because he has a short fuse and some really big sticks, and has been known to go off the rails when he gets riled enough.
I would like to believe that somebody in the White House is doing some serious thinking about all this, and that the decision to attack Syria flows out of a larger, coherent view of the world and our place in it. I am doubtful.
[*Footnote: The phrase “America First” has a history. The America First Committee, created in 1940, favored isolationism and strongly resisted America entering World War 2. They viewed the push for American intervention in Europe as part of a Jewish plot.]