The US missile strike against the Syrian air base has a lot of people wondering where exactly Trump is heading with this. Some of his more isolationist supporters have expressed anger and disappointment in Trump with this display of interventionism, while some critics of Trump have praised this move as a moment in which Trump finally gets what being president entails. Some are wondering whether this is a signal that Trump’s attitude toward Syria is changing.
I think it’s not that simple. While the al-Assad regime deserves to get the shit bombed out of them for their war crimes against innocent non-combatant civilians, I’m not sure that Trump’s motivations are as noble as many would like to believe. Maybe it’s just cynicism on my part…just kidding. It’s not cynicism, it’s just recognizing the way Trump has represented himself publicly over the years. Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post points out the many occasions in which Trump has publicly criticized Obama for his actions or inaction regarding Syria. To wit:
What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2013
AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2013
Furthermore, this Tweet could just as well (or actually more accurately) Trump’s own situation:
Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 9, 2012
Applebaum argues that Trump’s strike against Syria doesn’t change the narrative. I would agree that it would take more than viewing footage of civilians, including children, dying from a chemical attack for Trump to change his mind. As horrible as that footage was, civilians have been dying horribly for years as a result of the conflict. Since one of his positions during the election was to stay out of Syria, I think it would take more than simple compassion. He’s shown none for the Syrian people before. It puts him at odds with many of his supporters. Also, it complicates his seeming bromance with president of Russia Vladimir Putin.
So what are his possible motivations? To ignore such a high-profile war crime would likely bring about widespread criticism against Trump, so perhaps Trump feels that he may be able to weather some criticism from his isolationist supporters if he can garner some mainstream praise. Trump supporters are often stubbornly loyal. He may lose a few supporters, but he might gain many more.
There is also some debate regarding the actual effectiveness of the strike on Syrian capabilities. I think it unlikely that a single air strike is going to be a decisive factor in policy toward Syria. It might hurt them a little, but mostly it seems to be a show of force, to “send a message” that the US will not tolerate actions such as this. But in this case, unless there is continued pressure on al-Assad in the future, that message looks to me to be an empty gesture. It appeases those who rightly feel outrage at the atrocity, but at the same time it helps to distance Trump from his alleged connections to Russia.
Russia, who has a friendly relationship with Syria, has condemned the strike, calling it an “act of aggression.” But if the strike was indeed less effective than it could have been, it could be argued that the strike was simply a PR stunt, taking advantage of a grisly event for political acumen.
I admit, that’s a pretty cynical view. While most of Trump’s staff are a bunch of goons and cronies, he has a couple of solid people in Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. I don’t believe that they would suffer fools, but even they have their limits, and when the fool is the president, well…
The point is, the missile strike against Syria seems to me a lot more complicated than it appears to be at face value. Trump said, “…I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing…I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that,” but it remains to be seen if Trump was moved enough by the images of dying Syrian kids to change his attitude about the crisis. One would hope. But if Trump really wants to help the Syrian people then missile strikes are not enough. Compassion for refugees will also be required to address the issue.
At best (and probably over-optimistically), the missile strike might be a first step in a multi-faceted approach to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Syria. But at worst, the strike against Syria could set a deadly precedent regarding military actions against other nations, namely North Korea. Either way, despite the public statements made by Russia, I don’t see a substantive degradation in the relationship between Russia and Trump yet. We’ll see how that goes. But however much their relationship degrades, it should not be a distraction from the inquiry into Russian involvement before and during the election.