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Is Trump’s Bold Syria Strike a Dangerous Miscalculation?

The president enforced the U.S. red line on chemical weapons, but this could all turn out very badly.

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Syria from the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2017.
Trump ordered a massive military strike against a Syria Thursday in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack they blame on President Bashar al-Assad. A US official said 59 precision guided missiles hit Shayrat Airfield in Syria, where Washington believes Tuesday's deadly attack was launched.
 / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump delivers a statement on Syria from the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2017. Trump ordered a massive military strike against a Syria Thursday in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack they blame on President Bashar al-Assad. A US official said 59 precision guided missiles hit Shayrat Airfield in Syria, where Washington believes Tuesday's deadly attack was launched. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Of the straw men President Barack Obama so enjoyed arguing against on national security policy, one of the most exasperating was that there was no alternative to his hesitance other than an invasion — with hundreds of thousands of troops and an endless counterinsurgency to fight. He was derisive about limited uses of force to achieve limited political objectives. He saw endless vulnerabilities in our position and none in those of our adversaries — so no action should be taken against, say, Iranian harassment of shipping in the Strait of Hormuz because Tehran might retaliate, as though we had no escalation options, when in many instances the United States possessed escalation dominance. The approach served to defang U.S. threats and undermine the deterrence of adversary action on which so many U.S. security commitments rely. As Gen. Ulysses Grant said of Union Secretary of War Edward Stanton, “He could see our weakness, but he could not see that the enemy was in danger.” So it was with Obama.

The punitive military strikes President Donald Trump ordered on Thursday night against the Syrian airbase from which the forces flew that dropped chemical weapons on Syrian civilians — and then bombed the hospitals treating the victims of the attacks — are not only a valuable reinforcing of the norm against the use of weapons of mass destruction, they are also a reminder that the United States can, in fact, use military force in limited but effective ways.

The Tomahawk missile strikes on the Shayrat Airbase look like a pretty well-thought- through and well-executed operation. The president took seriously his responsibility to explain America’s actions to the world and sounded properly pious and grave. The Defense Department came up with a sensible approach that mitigated the substantial geopolitical risks. The Russians — though certainly not pleased with the attack — were clearly consulted, and effort was taken to skirt the locations of their forces on the ground in Syria. Not only was war with Russia avoided, but the limits of Moscow’s support for President Bashar al-Assad was also demonstrated. Russia’s subsequent dissembling about the source of the attack was dismissed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The Israeli Defense Forces have acknowledged they were also informed in advance, as they ought to have been, given the risks of retaliation against Israel.

The Trump administration evidently didn’t consult with the Congress before  the attacks, which is a glaring oversight they may pay for later. But Congress’s glaring deficiencies in running from a vote to authorize the use of military force make that a draw.

In sum, at this early hour, the administration looks to be leaving Assad in place in an excess of concern about post-Islamic State stability, but while constraining his behavior. Meanwhile, it’s a lesson about where Trump is willing to go. American allies far afield of the Middle East fretted about our reliability when Obama declined to enforce his Syrian red line. They may be relieved to see Trump is not so chastened by the associated risks to enforce his.

This may yet turn out badly for the United States. The Russians may be more committed to Assad than their removal of planes and personnel from the airfield suggest. Tillerson’s questioning both their honesty and competence may rankle. Syrian military and intelligence forces may target Americans operating in Syria and Iraq; the Iranian Quuds forces may do the same. The Iranian navy may seek to provoke incidents with U.S. forces operating in the Persian Gulf. And, it’s possible that Iran may break out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and restart its nuclear program in the hopes it will negate our conventional force advantages or prevent further attacks through fear of nuclear retaliation against the United States or Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas may strike Israel, or attempt to take the Golan. Moreover, the legal basis may prove contentious (as Jack Goldsmith has argued), and Congress may prove fickle in its support. It leaves the United States in the morally awkward position of permitting the killing of Syrian children, but only seeming to object to the weapons they are killed with — hardly a winning argument on the Arab street.

The biggest risk coming out of the attack, though, may be the ease and speed with which the commander in chief flipped his position. Horrible as the Khan Sheikhoun attack was, the Assad government has used chemical weapons dozens and dozens of times, and has committed numerous other war crimes. The regime has killed a half million people and made refugees out of 5 million more. This week’s attack was a difference of degree, not of kind. Yet Trump was moved to reverse himself on involvement in the Syrian civil war. Al Qaeda’s success on 9/11 was not only the murder of 2,996 people in a shocking atrocity, but the subsequent redirection of U.S. national security interests. Trump has now allowed his national security priorities to be similarly hijacked, which could incentivize other adversaries to try to provoke similar redirections. (In the president’s defense, however, he managed to keep the visit with China’s president on track.)

But the indiscipline that has characterized the Trump’s actions may lead him to emotional reactions without corresponding strategy. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, too, described a “big shift” in policy, but it’s not clear what’s beyond the punitive strike in this new policy toward Syria. Trump’s comments sounded an expansive tone: “Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.” While the president may have laudably enforced the red line against chemical weapons use and demonstrated that the United States is willing to use its immense power for good, he still needs to develop and explain a policy.

Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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