Give President Donald Trump credit for at least being inconsistent. On March 30 in Ankara, his secretary of state hinted that Bashar al-Assad could remain in power. A week later, it seems increasingly certain that the Syrian regime attacked the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province with chemical weapons, almost certainly nerve agents. But after months of denouncing foreign policy do-goodism and propounding the grumpy doctrine that the United States only looks out for Number One, Trump got riled up at the sight of murdered children, and ordered the U.S. Navy to smack a Syrian air base, which it did with 59 cruise missiles.
To be sure, the United States mitigated the president’s righteous anger by telegraphing its punch to the Russians, who promptly warned the Syrians, who presumably got as far away from the Designated Mean Points of Impact as fast as they could. It is also true that few presidents are oblivious to the political upsides of looking tough by blowing up some empty buildings—particularly if doing so undercuts the story that your presidential campaign was in cahoots with the Kremlin. Still, it was a firm response to a loathsome crime, and Trump’s visible distress betrayed a decent outrage that many of his opponents would not have credited him with.
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.
The administration will blame the mess on its predecessor, an intellectually justifiable if not particularly useful position. The Obama administration’s chemical weapons deal with Syria in 2013 was largely bogus. The Syrian government kept plenty of weapons, or the capacity to manufacture them. In return for giving up some chemical munitions, it got the United States, eager not to engage there in any serious way, largely off its back, while the Russians got the prestige of brokering a deal legitimating their return to the Middle East. In an unsavory way, it was a win-win-win. It would be unseemly—indeed, hypocritical—for former Obama administration officials to criticize Trump’s Syria policy. It was Obama, not Trump, who drew a red line and ignored it, and who, after the agreement was concluded, chose not to make anything of the regime’s subsequent, repeated use of chemical weapons against civilians.
And the notion that Obama would have acted in Syria if Congress had only gone along with its plans is nonsense. The administration did not try hard to sell or persuade Congress. In places like Libya, it demonstrated a repeated willingness to bomb without the support of Capitol Hill. Rather, after issuing a threat, Obama and some of his top White House advisers got cold feet. And there is a fairly direct line from that moment to the photographs of dead children that so revolted Trump. As even some former officials in the Obama administration admit, the word “Syria” will be etched across the headstone of their foreign policy, in upper case letters.
On the other hand, if the Trump administration obsesses over the wretched mess it inherited, it will likely continue in the tradition of its predecessor, which so bathed itself in contempt for the Bush administration that it paralyzed its own decision-making. Part of the rising childishness in our political culture is reflected in preening and dancing in the end zone after a success; much worse, however, is whining and evading responsibility in the face of difficulty. A new administration owns every problem it faces, and acts accordingly. We will see whether or not in this respect, at least, those in the Trump administration can behave like grownups.
The first substantial military operation of the Trump administration is the very beginning of a much bigger story, one whose plots and subplots remain unclear. The Syrian imbroglio is just a subset of a chaotic Middle East, which itself is just an element in a turbulent world. We simply do not know what principles will guide the Trump administration’s reactions to that world. The problem is, the Trump administration does not either.