President Trump’s missile strike on Syria last week seems to have been based on instinct rather than reason. This is worrying.
Well, he finally got something right.
Following the attack on April 4, apparently with chemical weapons, on the Syrian rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun, President Trump responded on April 7 by ordering a cruise missile strike on the Syrian airbase of Shayrat, from where, according to US intelligence sources, the original attack was launched.
And for once, even the “very, very dishonest media” – up to and including many normally hostile opinion writers at the “failing” New York Times – said he was right.
Ok, if you’re a diehard Trump supporter, you could point out that most of them were pretty mealy-mouthed about it. You could also scarcely fail to notice that there were a lot of questions about his motives, and the practical usefulness of his military response. But, hey, let’s not be so small-minded.
I don’t want to go into all the arguments about deeper agendas; about changing the focus away from narratives about Russian connections to the Trump team before and after the election, about the spectacular failure to dump Obamacare, about chaos and infighting within his administration. There’s quite possibly a lot of truth in all these arguments. But, for the moment, let’s leave these aside and assume that the simple narrative version supported by the president’s own words is correct.
The impression that this narrative gives is that what fundamentally moved the president to order the missile strike were the heart-breaking pictures of the victims of the chemical weapons attack:
‘“I will tell you,” he said to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, “that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
Appearing again the next evening at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump said that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had “choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”[i]’
And so, the descriptions of Donald Trump as an egotistical narcissist, incapable of feeling real empathy with others, are also proved untrue. Here is a president who, when confronted with the awful pictures of children desperately, futilely coughing their lives out after sarin gas poisoning, finally reacted the way any decent person would, delivering fire and fury down on the forces of Bashar al-Assad, who had, in all likelihood, ordered the attack on Khan Shaykhun.
Let’s not harp on the fact that Trump has been saying for years that America should stay out of the Syrian conflict. After all, if there is one thing that he has proved to be true, it’s that consistency is the most overvalued trait in a politician. Let’s even forget that almost everything he has said probably led Assad to think that another chemical weapons attack would produce no downside for him apart from eminently ignorable ritual condemnations. You can even give this a positive slant; let dictators and rogues worldwide, from North Korea to Iran, be warned – don’t believe that you can predict how the US president is going to react. Be careful, and behave yourselves!
In the world of real estate capitalism that Donald Trump comes from being an unpredictable gorilla may be an advantage. In the complicated world of international relations it is not – unless you’re someone like Muammar Kaddafi or Kim Jung-Un. If you’re the biggest gorilla in the zoo, it becomes downright dangerous.
The rules which have evolved over centuries to regulate, deescalate, prevent and end conflict internationally are far from perfect. But they are the best we’ve got, the ones that have proved over time to work – at least at some level, some time. You can argue that it would have been pointless to seek UN Security Council support for a punishment strike on Assad (which would have given the strike international legitimacy) because Russia would have immediately vetoed it. But going through this phase before launching an attack would have at least brought the advantage of showing up even more clearly Putin’s continuing support for the dictator in Damascus for the cynical international power play it is.
Trump’s contradictory and unpredictable comments and actions give rise to worldwide uncertainty, not to mention confusion in his own country. Of course, when you are in a shooting war with someone else, then unpredictability may give you advantages. But the USA is not formally at war with anyone; indeed, quite a large number of countries – all the NATO members, Japan, and Australia, for example – are formal allies of the USA. And, among allies, unpredictability is a decided disadvantage, above all because it erodes trust. There has been no suggestion that the Trump administration even considered trying to bring NATO, or at least some NATO members, on board before launching last Friday’s strike.
The questions I have raised up to now – and a number of others – are excellently dealt with by Erin Bence’s article here on this site. But I would like to address one other issue, the interpretation that the fundamental reason for the strike, as I outlined above, is the president’s visceral reaction to the horrific footage of the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun. Seen this way, the Tomahawk strike is the act of a man who “has always taken pride in his readiness to act on instinct, whether in real estate or reality television.” Because, if this is true, then it is probably one of the most worrying events of this presidency up to now.
The president of the USA is the most powerful man in the world – a world which is incredibly complex, where his decisions give rise to all sorts of complicated chains of reactions and further actions. His decisions – literally – have life and death consequences for potentially millions of people globally, up to and including (in certain circumstances) the power to wage a nuclear war. It is a colossal responsibility.
It is a responsibility which should preclude any tendency to see “gut decisions” in any sort of positive way.
A rational, reasoned, considered approach to foreign policy can be amazingly frustrating. Looking back at the struggles of the Obama administration to try to achieve such an approach to Syria shows this. I would be willing to bet that the question frequently left Obama, Biden, Clinton, Kerry, and others involved in trying to formulate policy, ready to bite large chunks out of whatever furniture was available. This is because in the complex mess which the Arab Spring gave rise to in Syria there are no good decisions, particularly given the history of US involvement in the area, especially since 9/11.
A foreign policy arrived at by rational means will not usually be universally agreed with, because – depending on your underlying principles, goals, and (above all) interpretation of the factors involved – there will be many different options. But deciding and implementing foreign policy in this way allows you to set up a context for your future actions, gives you tools to judge the efficacy of what you have done up to now (and, if necessary, amend and modify your next steps), and gives all the other parties involved in the particular issue clear signals which will also help them formulate policy and interact with you to achieve a resolution.
This generally takes time. It involves processes which will often fail and need to be renegotiated and tried again – multiple times. It is agonising because, while you are trying to find solutions, people frequently continue to suffer and die.
This is why the whole science and practice of diplomacy has evolved in human societies over thousands of years. It is why countries have strong foreign ministries (in the US this is called the State Department) well-staffed with trained experts. It is why it is generally a good idea for politicians who have responsibilities in such areas to listen to them.
And all of this is what Trump seems to feel is unnecessary. Having repeatedly stated that the USA should stay out of Syria, his gut reaction to the terrible pictures of the victims of Assad’s chemical weapon attack was to change his mind. It is completely understandable. It is also very wrong.
In our private lives, you and I have the luxury to make decisions based on instinct. If these turn out to be wrong, we know that we will face the consequences. The president of the USA does not have this luxury, the responsibility he carries for his country and the world is simply too great. For it is other people – potentially the whole world – who have to accept the consequences of his decisions.
That is the difference between a property magnate/reality TV host and a president.