In launching a missile attack against Syria President Trump announced that America was back in the game. Sighs of relief were heard around the world, but most especially from the Middle Eastern nations that had been diminished by the Obama administration. The world had been descending into chaos because the Obama administration had produced a leadership vacuum. Especially in the Middle East.
Trump’s predecessor had systematically disfavored Sunni Arabs and Israel in order to favor the growing influence of Iran and other members of the axis of evil. These nations, along with many of America’s traditional European allies cheered the show of decisive action on the part of an American president. One needed but to read the faces of the Sunni leaders who have recently met with Trump in the White House. Idem for the expression of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The attack was intended to make a statement. First, it declared that the Obama era in foreign policy was over. And surely that was a good thing. See Jeffrey Goldberg's comments in The Atlantic.
Many Democrats cheered the Trump action, but some few remaining Obamaphiles were still trying to defend their Saviour. Last night, former State Department spokesperson Marie Harf, now a commentator on Fox News, suggested that Obama was not at fault for not acting on his Syrian red line. The fault lay with a Congress that did not authorize him to do so. This leads one to observe that if Harf wants to have a career in broadcast journalism she needs to get over thinking like a State Department flack.
In January Susan Rice declared that the Obama administration was proud of having rid Syria of all chemical weapons. Now we know that the claim was bogus. And it was bogus before last week’s attack. Those who care about facts knew it. Those who were spinning as fast as they could did not. As for the excuse, namely that Obama could not enforce the red line that he had so ominously laid down because Congress would not let him, the Trump action showed that a president does not need Congressional approval to launch military strikes.
In fairness, many former members of the Obama administration were thrilled by the Trump action. In particular, Anne-Marie Slaughter cheered the attack.
Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities.
Since Slaughter was director of policy planning in the State Department, her reaction suggests that the question was vigorously debated in the Obama administration and that the cowardly response was imposed by the president himself.
The Trump action was clear and decisive. It showed, once again that the Obama foreign policy was based on weakness and fecklessness, on empty words. Everyone ought to know that Barack Obama bears the greatest responsibility for the horrors that have befallen Syria. The Obamaphile rationalizations are now sounding especially empty.
And yet, the Trump administration has been criticized for its seemingly contradictory statements. It was not very long ago that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that Bashar Assad’s fate should be left to the Syrian people. But then, after the chemical weapons attack, the policy shifted to regime change.
And how can one connect the Trump administration’s efforts to reach out to Vladimir Putin to its willingness to attack a Russian proxy like Assad. People who were criticizing Trump for his efforts to get along with Vladimir Putin are now having second thoughts.
Perhaps this is not as complicated as it seems. The Trump approach toward Russia and even Syria began with an opening gambit. The new president offered an open hand of friendship, an olive branch to a combatant. In principle, this gesture invites an opponent into a negotiation that can put an end to conflict. It is not just a diplomatic nicety. It is an opening move in a game, one that is designed to set off a movement toward a peace settlement.
Assad did not respond with a reciprocal gesture. He responded by launching a chemical weapons attack on his own citizens. Given that it had offered a gesture of conciliation the Trump administration was morally justified in responding with a flurry of Tomahawk missiles. If Tillerson had not made his initial gesture, the response would have lacked a defining moral justification.
Some people, especially Sen. Marco Rubio, suggested that the Tillerson gambit opened the door to Assad, by giving him the green light. Of course, Rubio is grandstanding—for a change—and pretending to be the toughest guy on the block. It only makes sense for Assad to respond to a peace offering with an act of war if he thinks that he can win the war. The side that thinks it is winning a war does not sue for peace. And it does not accept a peace offering.
Another interpretation, more cogent than the last, is that Assad, and through Assad, Putin, was testing the fortitude of the Trump administration. Surely, it makes sense.
Trump has blustered about how tough he is, but he has never displayed toughness on the world stage. Largely because he has never been involved on the world stage. Besides, his approval ratings have been in free fall and the nation is sharply divided over his presidency. Did Assad, or Putin, see a chance to exploit vulnerability? To test him? Surely, it’s possible. Did Assad, or Putin, want to see whether Trump’s conciliatory attitude bespoke strength or weakness? Perhaps. After all, the nation that elected Donald Trump also elected his pusillanimous predecessor.
Walter Russell Mead offered a cogent version of this theory in the Wall Street Journal this morning.
In his words:
This must have looked like a good week to challenge Washington. The Trump administration is beset by critics. Most senior national-security posts remain unfilled. The White House is torn by infighting. The Republican Party is divided by the bitter primary campaign and its recent health-care fiasco.
President Trump concluded, correctly, that failing to respond effectively to Mr. Assad’s challenge would invite more probes and more tests. He moved quickly and decisively against the provocation, demonstrating that the days of strategic dithering are gone.
For an alternative theory, Stephen Bryen suggests that Assad wanted to forestall a peace process that would limit his authority:
The more likely truth is that Assad was deeply afraid that the US policy shift was part of a secret deal with the Russians, one that he had to head off.
Bryen, a man of considerable experience in these areas, suggests that Assad’s use of nerve gas was a slap in Putin’s face. For my part I find this to be slightly less than plausible. W1hy would Assad risk everything by insulting his primary benefactor and defender? Did he think that Putin would take a grievous insult lying down?
Some commentators-- like Frank Bruni-- have also pointed out that Trump’s attack on Syria pushed a large number of unflattering and embarrassing stories out of the press. Trump’s presidency had been taking fire from many sides. Now, he had a chance to unite the nation and burnish his image. Yet, while it is true that the attack improved the president’s image, showing him to be decisive and in command, this does not necessarily mean that he did it in order to appear to be decisive and in command.
The political calculus makes some sense, but one needs to notice that the people in charge, Mattis and McMaster have never been in the business of image management. Would they have proposed a military action in order to make the president look good? They are sophisticated military strategists… such people do not drop bombs without having any sense of the potential real world consequences. Without, that is, gaming out the possible ourcomes.
The attack on Syria was measured and decisive. It showed that America was back in the game. After the Obama administration had walked away from the table, it was necessary for the new leader to take command.
Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal provides an excellent analysis of the consequences. By analysis here, I mean that Seib examines the state of the game. The game in question is foreign policy.
Seib offers these points:
For starters, the action comes precisely as the new president is being tested by North Korea and its erratic leader, Kim Jong Un. In fact, nobody has challenged Mr. Trump more directly; the North Korean’s welcome note to Mr. Trump has been a series of missile tests seemingly designed to show that his quest to develop the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to Seoul, Tokyo or Los Angeles will continue unabated.
And, also, the action sent a message to China:
That message likely also reached the man Mr. Trump happened to be meeting Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Chinese have more influence over North Korea than anyone, and they seem perpetually torn over how to use that influence….
If Chinese leaders are convinced that the American administration is prepared to take dramatic action to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, their incentive to move on their own to prevent such a sequence of events goes up. Perhaps that is how Mr. Xi will read his options after Mr. Trump demonstrated a willingness to act in Syria.
As for Russia, Seib offers this analysis:
For Russia, the Syria move may represent a rude discovery that the new American president won’t be the pliant partner that the Kremlin had hoped for. The biggest change in Syria since President Barack Obama declined to take a similar military step there was a dramatic escalation in Russia’s presence on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The Russians and their Syrian patrons may have thought that presence would shield Mr. Assad from American hostilities. And they may have thought that doubly true after Mr. Trump, who campaigned on a platform of improving relations with Russia and skepticism about involvement in more Middle Eastern fights, took office.
Seib concludes by noting the message that is being sent to Iran:
Finally, Iran, Syria’s other big international enabler, has to think anew about the potential costs of its own involvement in Syria—as well as the consequences it might face if it breaks out of the deal it struck to curb its nuclear activities.
All these actors are capable of making big trouble for Mr. Trump if they feel threatened, but they also might choose to moderate their behavior if they think the new president isn’t withdrawing from the world stage.