What We Still Don’t Know About Trump’s Syria Strike

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“Low risk, low reward.” Photo: Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Given all we know of him, it’s hard to imagine that, with the perspective of two weeks’ passage, Donald Trump could be much happier with the missile strike he ordered against Syria. Almost as soon as 59 Tomahawks were launched toward al-Shayrat Air Base from Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean, he was being hailed as decisive and statesmanlike and strong. Longtime critics, including many Democrats, extolled his resolve. Cable-news commentators marveled at the flashes of light as Pentagon footage played on loop.

No matter that Trump was defying his own all-caps advice from a few years before. No matter that the strike did little to change the battlefield or political dynamics in Syria’s civil war. No matter that, within hours, Bashar al-Assad’s planes were taking off from the base and the same town targeted with chemical weapons earlier in the week was being bombarded once again.

Polling showed that 66 percent of Americans approved of the strike — marking it as one of the few popular decisions Trump has made since January 20. Conversation shifted sharply away from investigations of collusion between the Kremlin and his campaign. And maybe best of all, Trump could boast of doing the opposite of what his predecessor had done. “I’m not like Obama,” he crowed, as if anyone needed reminding.

But if the takeaway from the missile strike was clear enough for Trump, the takeaway for the rest of us is another matter. The disquieting lesson of the order and its aftermath is not about Trump’s vaunted unpredictability, or some betrayal of isolationist promises in favor of an Establishment-blessed foreign policy. It is how his combination of indiscipline and bluster, of swagger without strategy, invites crisis — and how his response to one crisis can sow the seeds for greater dangers down the road. In Syria, in the course of enforcing one “red line,” Trump drew “many, many” more.

The missile strikes themselves were a “low-risk, low-reward” response — Russians at the base were warned ahead of time, targets were chosen carefully to avoid igniting chemical-weapons stockpiles — and one Obama likely would have ordered himself had Assad’s most recent nerve-gas attack come while he was in office. (In that case, many of the commentators and politicians who drooled over Trump’s show of strength would have mocked the action’s scale.) Far from rendering the air base “no longer usable,” as Tillerson claimed afterward, the strike was meant to send a message. The problem lies in the Trump administration’s inability to determine what, exactly, that message is supposed to be — thus undercutting the purpose of the strike in the first place.

Praise afterward centered on the notion of credibility. “With our credibility restored, the United States can get back on offense around the world,” proclaimed Republican senator Tom Cotton. It needed restoring, according to the prevailing logic, because of Obama. In 2013, following a nerve-gas attack by the Syrian regime just a year after he declared a “red line” against chemical-weapons use, Obama called off a much-hyped military response in favor of a diplomatic agreement to destroy Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles — undermining, the charge went, the soundness of American threats. Obama would voice disdain for Washington’s fixation on credibility (a disdain supported by academic research showing that credibility in international relations is hardly as clear-cut as pundits and politicians generally believe). But even his own advisers had often affirmed the conventional wisdom. So he could not have been particularly surprised when the argument was turned back on him — including by Trump, who rushed to blame Assad’s latest nerve-gas attack on “the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”

In fact, to the extent there was a credibility problem, it was of more recent creation. After all, the attack came not in the final three years of Obama’s presidency, but in the first months of Trump’s. (The Syrian government had evidently concealed and kept a small stock, contrary to its promises, something American officials had suspected but could not prove, as 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons were extracted from the country.) Top members of the new administration had underscored what Trump expressed repeatedly during the campaign: Assad was not really our concern. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said so publicly, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that the message was intended. A few days later, Syrian aircraft dropped nerve gas on the town of Khan Shaykhun, and grisly images of the victims soon appeared on TV, for Trump and the rest of the world to see.

After the American response, the Pentagon promptly stressed the limited purpose of punishing Assad for his use of chemical weapons. But Trump, reading from a teleprompter at Mar-a-Lago, was expansive, summoning “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” Haley reversed her previous statement and clarified that Washington would insist on Assad’s removal. Tillerson, with his singular ability to contradict himself so many times while speaking so few words, suggested that Assad did in fact have to go, then that he did not, then that perhaps he did. Spicer ended up intimating an entirely new red line against barrel bombs — a weapon already used regularly by Assad’s air force. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster tried to paper over incoherence with wishful thinking. Ending Assad’s rule was America’s objective, he explained, but “we are not saying that we are the one who are going to effect this change.” If you’re confused, imagine trying to make sense of the cacophony from, say, Damascus or Moscow.

Trump, meanwhile, appeared to find the whole experience thrilling. He recounted his actions the night of the strike — “we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen, and President Xi was enjoying it” — as if they were battlefield heroics. And he cannot have failed to appreciate the small bump in his approval rating, or the freedom of action the commander-in-chief enjoys in foreign policy. There was no need to understand the vagaries of the legislative process, or haggle with the Freedom Caucus, or contend with pesky judges. He had only to huddle with his generals and before long the Tomahawks flew. “It’s so incredible,” he gloated. “It’s brilliant. It’s genius.”

That thrill, combined with the muddle of goals and conflicting priorities and ambiguous new red lines that came with it, makes for an unsettling inaugural demonstration of national-security crisis management in the Trump era. Defenders invoke a version of Richard Nixon’s madman theory of foreign policy: Petrified by the crazed, erratic occupant of the Oval Office, nervous adversaries will give ground. Trump’s own celebrations of unpredictability suggest a similar line of thinking. Unfortunately, the madman theory works only if there is a method to the madness; the madman can’t simply be raving, his bravado and threat and imprecation unhinged from underlying strategy.

The administration’s preferred phrase is “on notice.” The Syria strike “put Assad on notice,” said Haley. “I think he has put them clearly on notice,” said Spicer of the North Koreans. “We are officially putting Iran on notice,” said National Security Adviser Mike Flynn before his firing. “On notice” may sound tough and resolute. What it actually means is another question. The danger is that those on the receiving end will try to find out for themselves before anyone in the Trump administration has come up with a clear answer.

What We Still Don’t Know About Trump’s Syria Strike