But the president might be the last to know it.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
In the summer of 2014, the Obama administration initiated another war of choice in the Middle East. The intervention in Iraq had two stated objectives: saving Yazidis at risk of genocide and defeating the Islamic State. At the time, I wrote a series of columns guessing that any strike assets deployed to the region would be repurposed for other missions, that the operation would last longer than officials indicated, that mission creep was an absolute certainty, and that this would all happen quietly with limited congressional interest or public scrutiny. I was soon proven correct, unfortunately though unsurprisingly.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump slid further down this same intervention slope by authorizing the attack of a Syrian military airfield in Homs with 59 cruise missiles. According to a Pentagon news release, the military objective was not to harm Russian or Syrian forces, but to damage “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars.” These strikes occurred without any public debate, without a single congressional hearing (and, for most members of Congress, without even notification until the missiles were launched), and were decided after two days of thinking or debate within the White House and just two meetings of “virtually all” the Principal’s Committee of the National Security Council, according to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.
To assess whether this attack “worked” requires first identifying the intended political objectives. Unfortunately, the messages emanating from the Trump administration on this question are already confused. Trump stated Thursday that the goal was “to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” The Department of Defense statement read: “The strike was intended to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again” — with the nonproliferation objective omitted.
Of course, any honest observer would know that upholding international norms against the use of chemical weapons is not the actual objective of the attack. As I noted in 2013, using force unilaterally and in clear violation of international law and norms in order to uphold another international norm is a shortsighted and simply bad idea. Moreover, deterring the employment of poisonous gases hardly requires a war. In the last year for which we have complete data (2015), an estimated 97,000 people in the world (combatants and civilians) died as a direct result of armed conflicts. Maybe a few hundred of these died from chemical weapons. In a world awash with weapons and ammunition, none of the parties fighting these wars (including in Syria) needs chemical weapons, so persuading them not to use them shouldn’t require a heavy military lift.
Based on my conversations with people who would know, if the Washington national security community — meaning Trump administration officials, members of Congress and their staff, pundits, and analysts — was being honest, I suspect it endorses Thursday’s strikes because it is simply fatigued by watching the suffering of civilians in Syria and war crimes committed by all sides to the conflict (although only government war crimes are ever discussed). The community feels a need to make a statement of opposition that is demonstrable and visual, to “do something.” As Trump put it before the missiles were launched: “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity … so something should happen.”
The dilemma with using bombs to satisfy this humanitarian impulse is that it will not be the last kinetic “something” that Trump authorizes. An unnamed senior defense official said late Thursday that the attack was a “one-off,” but this is likely an aspirational statement rather than a policy declaration. The cinematic videos released instantly by the Pentagon of the missiles “lighting up the night sky” and the images of a severely damaged airfield in Homs are meant to show that a price was paid by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force, which has been used indiscriminately and inhumanely for over half a decade, according to several U.N. Commission of Inquiry investigations.
Unfortunately, while the cruise missile strikes may make American officials and policymakers feel better about having “sent a message” that Assad will “pay a price,” the effects will be temporary. The internationalized civil war will continue. All of the external powers with keep training and arming their allies within Syria, while conducting their own airstrikes on behalf of them. The United States will, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged on Thursday night, continue its “policy or [its] posture relative to [its] military activities in Syria today. There’s been no change in that status.”
Assad will defend his regime with more war crimes — with the full backing of Russia and Iran — and Trump will face the choice of perceived acquiescence or further escalation of more intensive military strikes against more and more regime assets. Such strikes will alter the battlefield calculation to the benefit of the armed opposition groups — a long-time desire of Persian Gulf governments and neoconservatives on Capitol Hill — which one can easily imagine will incentive them (and their external patrons) to escalate their own operations to induce regime change.
Another unspoken but honest reason for endorsing these strikes within Washington is to establish U.S. “credibility” vis-à-vis allies and adversaries. The belief of such proponents today is that this recent use of force will compel the Iranian and North Korean governments to halt activities that the Trump administration opposes. Michael Ledeen, co-author of a book last year with disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, articulated this view most succinctly: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Or, as President George H.W. Bush declared when celebrating the end of the first Gulf War: “It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” Of course, if bombing one country earned the United States credibility with other countries, given the hundreds of thousands of bombs dropped (and three U.S.-led regime changes) since 9/11, America should be at maximum credibility all of the time.
I have studied limited U.S. military operations such as Thursday evening’s cruise missile strikes for almost 20 years. I have found that the majority of the time, they either fully or partially achieve their military objectives of destroying things and killing people. However, they rarely achieve their political objectives of deterring a foreign government or armed group from doing something, or compelling them from stopping an ongoing activity. It is unlikely that 59 cruise missiles will succeed in deterring or compelling Damascus, Moscow, Tehran, or Pyongyang from doing anything they planned to do already. When it is clear that this attempt at deterrence has failed, the question is: Then what?
The time between the Syrian chemical attack and Trump response is the shortest period for debate or deliberation compared with recent U.S. retaliatory attacks. Consider that the 1986 airstrikes on Libya were 10 days after a Berlin nightclub bombing, the 1993 cruise missile attacks against the Iraqi intelligence headquarters occurred 73 days after an alleged Iraqi government plot to assassinate President George H.W. Bush while he was traveling to Kuwait, and the 1998 cruise missile attacks against Afghanistan and Sudan were conducted 13 days after East African embassy bombings. There is simply no way that the massively understaffed U.S. national security and foreign-policy apparatus has adequately thought through what’s next, nor will be able to apply the attacks to a renewed and synchronized strategy for Syria. This unprecedentedly fast instance of mission creep should worry the American people and Congress (about to enjoy 17 days of well-deserved vacation) more than anything else.
Photo credit: ABD DOUMANY/AFP/Getty Images