The airstrike was the right thing to do. But as with most uses of force, it seems like an answer bound to breed more questions. This was not a painful blow to the Assad regime. Having tipped off the Russians, and targeting things rather than people, it did not do much damage to anything the Assad regime cares about. By using cruise missiles rather than manned aircraft, the United States tacitly admitted that it is deterred, to some degree, by the Russian air defenses installed in Syria. If maximum military effect were desired, air-delivered ordnance is an order of magnitude cheaper and usually more destructive. But aircraft are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles in a way Tomahawk missiles are not.
Moreover, this was a one-time punch at a single target. A truly punishing attack would involve multiple targets, and perhaps repeated blows. An effective, destructive attack—that is, one that would worry the Assad regime—would have killed skilled personnel, military and political leaders, and elite fighters. This strike was, instead, appropriate in the narrowest and weakest sense: It went after the base (apparently) from which the nerve-agent-carrying planes that attacked Khan Sheikhoun flew. Blowing up some installations is not, in fact, “proportionate” to the massacre of children. A warning this was; the avenging sword of justice this was not. Conceivably, the Syrian government may calculate that worse will follow from a repeat offense. Just as conceivably, they and their Russian and Iranian allies may conclude that this president, like some of his predecessors, mistakes the theater of war for the real thing. They do not.
In the aftermath of the strike, there is, as ever, the question: “And now what?” America is presumably back to saying Assad must go—just how will the Trump administration move that along? What incentives do the Russians have to pressure Assad? Will there be retaliatory blows against U.S. service personnel fighting the Islamic State in Syria? If so, then what next? Will Trump ask congress for an authorization for the use of military force in Syria, where U.S. forces are actually fighting, and where they may now begin bombing fairly regularly? If the United States is committed to using force to maintain some kind of order in the Middle East, will it spend enough money—considerably more than the $54 billion in Trump’s peculiar and moribund budget proposal—to do so, even as it begins undoing the effects of the sequester? Will the Russians try to show Trump that they don’t want Americans pummeling their clients? If so, how will America respond?
This barrage of questions should not paralyze the U.S. government. But the Trump administration’s failure to staff itself adequately will make it difficult to address them. The array of assistant secretaries and undersecretaries who traditionally help presidents hammer out options is nowhere to be found. The National Security Council has a competent National Security Adviser in the person of Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster to guide its staff, but this is a White House riven by internal rivalries and alternative power centers, including the wounded but still influential America Firster Steve Bannon and the rising princeling Jared Kushner. Coherence will be in short supply.