On Thursday night, President Trump ordered a missile strike on an airbase in Syria from which the Assad regime launched its alleged sarin gas attack on dissidents this week. That attack is Trump’s first major military action, and it has been accompanied by predictable shock, celebration, and horror by various parties across the political spectrum.
Let’s break down what this means.
1. Was The Strike Worthwhile? This is the biggest question, of course. Did Trump’s quick and hard strike against a Syrian airbase – which apparently knocked out over a dozen Syrian jets – make any difference? There are two ways of gauging this question: will it dissuade Bashar Assad from more human rights violations? And will it act as a warning to other nations that might pursue use of WMDs, like Iran and North Korea? Both measures of success depend on what comes next. As David French points out at National Review, “if this is the only strike, unless it was extraordinarily and unusually effective, it has little chance of materially impacting the Assad regime or the course of the civil war itself. Even if it persuades Assad to refrain from dropping gas bombs, he’ll doubtless continue his campaign of mass murder with barrel bombs, cluster bombs, area bombing, and mass executions.” And as French also points out, a “pinprick strike” not followed up by further action often emboldens our enemies. Trump obviously hopes to signify that when he declares a red line, he means it – but it’s still not clear whether this will be a one-off Clintonian “respond to al Qaeda attacks in Tanzania and Kenya by shooting a camel in the ass with a cruise missile” situation, or prelude to a coherent policy.
2. What’s The Next Step? There are a plethora of strategies that could follow here. Some have called for a no-fly zone to enforce Assad’s inability to carry out future WMD attacks on Syrians, which could pressure the Russian government to let Assad fall in favor of another, less abusive Russian ally. Others have called for setting up refugee stations with American protection from Syrian airstrike. The most militant Republicans want the United States to take an active role in ousting Assad completely. That option seems the least likely – Secretary of State Tillerson released a statement to reporters that the strike didn’t represent a change in American policy toward Syria, after spending the early part of the week saying Assad could remain in power.
3. How Will Russia React? Trump reportedly warned the Russians before the missile strike so as to avoid Russian casualties on the ground; nonetheless, reports emerged over the course of the night that certain Russian assets were on the ground at the airbase. Russia warned the U.S. earlier in the day that it would not meet kindly with military action against Assad, and Russia obviously considers Syria a serious strategic interest – so serious that they’ve been deploying Russian boots on the ground there. This means that Trump is highly unlikely to do anything too provocative in Syria, whether or not Putin’s threats to retaliate are credible.
4. Was The Strike Constitutional? Many commentators are focusing on the process rather than the substance of the military strike. Some are doing so authentically, like Charles Cooke of National Review, who points out that acts of war require a declaration of war under the Constitution, or authorization to use military force at the very least. Then there are others, like Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who likely opposes the Constitutional process here as well as the substance. It is certainly true that Trump should have gone to Congress before authorizing a military strike here on Constitutional grounds.
5. Is This A Betrayal Of Trump’s Base? Trump’s alt-right base is fighting mad – they see Vladimir Putin as an ally and hawkish conservatives as the enemy. Mike Cernovich, whom members of the administration were praising just a few days ago, went on the warpath on Twitter; so did Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, who declared himself “OFF the Trump train.” Ann Coulter railed against Trump’s strike. All three are correct that Trump spent years moaning about Obama’s supposed interventionism in Syria. But most of Trump’s base won’t care deeply about Trump smacking Assad in the mouth, particularly if there’s little blowback from the Russians. Trump’s foreign policy was always predicated on a gut-level isolationism, but a macho response to provocation. The only question for Trump’s base was whether this amounted to provocation – and clearly in Trump’s mind, it did, particularly after he expressed his isolationism earlier this week. That doesn’t answer any real questions about how Trump will approach foreign policy more generally – reactionary militarism isn’t exactly a thoroughgoing worldview – but it isn’t a break from Trump’s tough talk persona.
As with all things Trump-related, it’s unclear what tomorrow will bring on Syria policy. But Trump has certainly shown that isolationism takes a back seat when it runs up against the realities of foreign policy.