Trump Bombs Syria. Now What?

A look at what the strategic objectives should be.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

President Trump’s swift bombing of a Syrian airfield responsible for a chemical attack has been praised by our allies and even by Democrats. The mere fact that Trump followed up his condemnation of a sarin gas attack with military action sends a signal that the U.S. is no longer the “weak, pitiful giant,” to use Richard Nixon’s phrase, that eight years of Barack Obama’s appeasement and retreat had left it. Such praise is deserved, but the bombing is just the start. The real question is, what happens next? What’s the strategic goal?

The effect of the attack on restoring American prestige is undoubtedly important. Obama’s foreign policy reflected the idealistic internationalism that dismisses such old-fashioned ideas as prestige. Modern progressive thinking holds that the use of force represents a foreign policy failure, and usually makes things worse by entangling the U.S. in escalation and quagmires. Non-lethal negotiated settlements are a better way to defuse conflict, and a national humility based on recognition of past neo-imperialist sins (see Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech) can make our rivals and enemies more amenable to “win-win” agreements. 

Obama’s now infamous “red line” warning about Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, a warning the Syrian butcher promptly violated, reflected this thinking. Rather than back up his bold words with force when Assad went ahead and used chemical weapons in the Ghouta region, Obama quickly accepted Russia’s offer to help him negotiate a deal: The U.S. wouldn’t bomb Syria if Assad surrendered his chemical weapons stockpiles to Russia. Despite domestic and international criticism of such an obviously feckless capitulation, Obama told a reporter last year that he is still “very proud of this moment.”

Of course the deal was negotiated in bad faith by Syria and Russia, and did nothing to stop the slaughter or the use of chemical weapons. Like the current deal with Iran, no one knew if the terms of the deal were being adhered to by Assad. Now we know that they weren’t, and that he retained significant stockpiles. Such duplicitous behavior is consistent with the long history of failed negotiated agreements that usually serve as a tactic for furthering an aggressor’s ends. And the failure of such “covenants without the sword,” as Hobbes called them, damages a state’s credibility and prestige, emboldening other aggressors. That in a nutshell is the history of Obama’s foreign policy, which has been a huge success for Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the myriad jihadist outfits swarming out of the Libya that our thoughtless intervention turned into a jihadist jungle.

So bombing the airfield is a necessary first step to restoring our credibility and concentrating the minds of our enemies and rivals. But it is only one step, and such a one-off by itself can often be an act of international public relations rather than a game-changer. Cruise-missile and drone attacks are dramatic and photogenic. They get media attention and make noise, but without a larger strategic plan, they serve mainly to create the illusion of action in the absence of a lack of will to use decisive force. Destroying some planes on one airfield, or killing an endless series of al Qaeda “number two” leaders has little strategic value. New war planes can be bought, and al Qaeda has an endless supply of potential “number twos.”

Bill Clinton illustrated this problem in the 90’s, when Saddam Hussein was serially violating the armistice terms ending the first Gulf War, and al Qaeda declared war on us and initiated the string of terrorist attacks culminating in 911. For example, after Hussein’s plot to assassinate George H.W. Bush was exposed, Clinton fired 20 cruise missiles at the Iraqi intelligence headquarters, but did so at night to minimize casualties. Hussein’s bad behavior not only continued, but worsened. A similar attack on a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant mistaken for a weapons facility, and the 66 cruise missiles fired on training camps in Afghanistan, likewise made a lot of noise but did nothing to stop or deter bin Laden. In the case of the latter attack, $76 million worth of missiles were launched to create six jihadist martyrs. 

Trump’s bombing in Syria must not fall into the same trap. Beyond doing something dramatic to restore our prestige and make our threats credible, why did we bomb the airfield? Trump claims that it is in our national interest to deter the further use of chemical weapons. But in the 60’s Nasser attacked Yemenis with chemical weapons, in the 70s Cuban mercenaries used them against Angolans, and in the 80s Iraq inflicted 50,000 casualties on Iran with chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran war. No one seemed to think a military response was necessary to deter further such heinous act and to uphold “international norms.” 

Moreover, is it credible that such punishment will be enough of a deterrent? Our destruction of Hussein’s regime, in part because he had used chemical weapons on the Kurds, obviously hasn’t deterred Assad or his alleged Russian partners in the atrocity. And given that our missiles were carefully aimed to avoid hitting Assad’s stockpiled tanks of sarin, it’s hard to see how destroying the planes on one air base with a still usable runway will stop Assad from using those weapons in the future. The best way to deter such behavior is to completely destroy the capacity to indulge it.

Trump’s public announcement also suggested that the attack was an emotional reaction to the deaths of children in the gas attack. We all deplore the killing of “beautiful babies,” as Trump said, but children across the globe are being killed every day. Half a million people, thousands of them children, have died in the Syrian conflict so far. Why is it that 23 children being killed by sarin gas is beyond the pale and requires us to act, but thousands more being obliterated by bombs or riddled by AK-47s or tortured to death by Assad’s goons aren’t? Heart-rending optics shouldn’t be the arbiter of our interventions.

In fact, such inconsistent or arbitrary reasons for taking action has damaged our credibility when we start preaching to the world and morally preening. During Obama’s presidency we heard a lot of pious sermons about the “Responsibility to Protect,” the imperative to enforce international “norms” and laws against heinous acts. But brutal death and destruction happen 247 all over the world. About sixty million people have died since World War II in all manner of state violence, and we did nothing about much of it beyond issuing U.N. resolutions and dispatching useless “peacekeepers.” And the times we did act decisively, we did so to protect our national interests and security, not to uphold “international norms.”

We in the rich, comfortable West might invoke these “norms” and “customs” in our rhetoric, but the rest of the world understands that there are no such things, only interests. They know why we did nothing to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, but bombed the Serbs because of a far less deadly conflict. We calculated, rightly or wrongly, that the former didn’t serve our national interests, but the latter did. “International norms” had little to do with it. As Robert Bork has pointed out, the only international “norms” are those codified in treaties freely entered into by sovereign nations because they calculate that the agreements serve their interests. And if necessary, nations will violate the treaty to achieve their aims, or simply walk away when the treaty is no longer useful.

As for international “customs” supposedly governing state behavior, history shows that the only “custom” of sovereign states is to maximize their interests, often at the expense of other states, and frequently by the use of force. The overwhelming military power of the West during modern times has allowed it to impose its one-world liberal-democratic idealism on everybody else, but that doesn’t mean those other peoples really believe in those ideals as eternal truths they are bound to honor at the expense of their own traditional values or national interests. 

Moreover, they see that the West frequently fails to practice what it preaches about international “norms,” and instead acts to serve its own interests. And they have nothing but contempt for us when we fail to act and camouflage our failure by invoking those exalted standards, as Obama made a habit of doing. They correctly understand such failure to be motivated by perceived national self-interest, the fear of domestic political repercussions, or simply a failure of nerve. Thus Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea interpret our preaching either as hypocrisy to be scorned or as weakness to be exploited, just as Russia and Iran have taken advantage of Obama’s lofty rationalizations for America’s retreat that was motivated in the main not by principle, but by a political calculation.

So which is it? Are we to be the judge, jury, and executioner of those who violate international “norms”? If so, what are the standards that determine which violations qualify for our expenditure of lives and resources? And are we the voters ready to commit to an open-ended, expensive global patrol to make others live up to the civilized standards of interstate behavior that are peculiar to the modern West, and often alien to the Rest? Or do we recognize that the only standard for using military violence is the protection of our national security and interests, that the tragic flaws of human nature forever remain beyond our power to improve, and that death and destruction will always be with us?

For Trump’s bombing of the airfield to be useful beyond one news cycle, we need to know the strategic goals such actions advance, how they serve our interests and security, what they will cost, what risks we will incur, and how far we are willing to go when they are challenged. And we have to make it clear that this attack isn’t a “one-off,” as some U.S. officials announced, but will be followed by others more devastating when an adversary calls our bluff, as Assad and Putin very well may do. Otherwise, the bombing will be just another transient photo-op that makes us feel good but changes nothing.