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The president had been saying that he didn’t think removing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was “practical.” Fair enough: Obama had been calling for his removal for years but never found a way to bring it about. Trump made clear that regime change in Syria was a far lower priority than fighting the Islamic State.

trump attacks syria

And then came the chemical bomb attack, most likely by the Syrian air force, against a Syrian city in rebellion. Trump avowed that he was so shocked by such an attack on women and children—“babies!”— that he had changed his attitude toward the Syrian regime. A day later nearly 60 cruise missiles slammed into the Syrian air base that allegedly launched the attack. Assad (not admitting responsibility for the gas attack) condemned the US response as irresponsible; Russian president Putin described it as contrary to international law, and requested an immediate meeting of the UN Security Council.

The chemical attack was an atrocious war crime. But what should be done about it? President Obama faced a similar dilemma during the first chemical warfare crisis in Syria. He famously had said that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” calling for a US response, but then found that there wasn’t any response that would actually help the situation and still avoid committing US ground troops. So, characteristically, since no response made sense, he did nothing, and was roundly criticized for that by Trump and other Republicans. Ultimately, Vladimir Putin bailed Obama out by brokering the agreement whereby the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapons.

This begs the question, where did the government get such weapons to stage this week’s attack?

However they got those weapons, now Trump faced the same dilemma as Obama. We can imagine that he and his advisers first reacted with horror to the gas attack, then realized that the “America First” foreign policy was inconsistent with the forceful response that seemed to be called for, then looked at conceivable responses and realized that none of them would actually help, finally deciding that, above all else they couldn’t allow Trump to be seen as acting like Barack Obama. So Trump ordered the missile attack anyway.

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In his impulsiveness, Trump seems not to have considered that in this Syrian war there are not two sides, but many sides, and none of those sides is really on our side. Each is playing its own game.

George H. W. Bush (Bush I), unlike his son Bush II, is usually remembered as a thoughtful and sophisticated practitioner of foreign policy, but his ambassador to Baghdad delivered one of history’s greatest false signals when she told Saddam Hussein that the United States had no particular interest in Baghdad’s territorial claim to Kuwait. Saddam of course took this as a green light to occupy Kuwait, and Bush believed it imperative for the US and the international community to roll back that occupation. Thus began the Gulf War.

Trump personally delivered pretty much the same message to Assad by taking regime change off the table. Apparently Assad took that as a green light for more assertive attacks on rebel populations. If Trump thought about it (an open question, admittedly), he probably considered the statement about Assad in the context of a strategy of finding common ground with Vladimir Putin of Russia to jointly manage the Syrian crisis.

But then, having sent that signal and seeing the horrific results, he seems to have forgotten entirely about the strategy to work with Russia, and reacted impulsively and unilaterally. Putin, condemning the missile attack (after having invested considerable resources in helping Trump get elected) would certainly not at this point do the favor for Trump that he earlier did for Obama.

In his impulsiveness, Trump seems not to have considered that in this Syrian war there are not two sides, but many sides, and none of those sides is really on our side. Each is playing its own game. To single out one of those sides (Assad) for attack, even though Assad has compelling reasons to want to defeat the Islamic State, is to perpetuate the kind of circular firing squad that has hindered the struggle against the Islamic State from the beginning.

There is tension between Trump’s slogan, “America First,” and a policy of defeating the Islamic State, since doing the latter will mean (Trump may not have thought this through, shocking though this may seem) long-term commitment of American troops in the Middle East and elsewhere. The irony of this impulsive missile attack is that it undercuts both the slogan and the policy. He’s sliding inexorably into the role of world policeman that he condemned so strongly in his campaign, his chances of success approach zero, but maybe he really believes “Only I can fix it!”

john peeler

Famous last words.

John Peeler