Leave aside the humanitarian and strategic consequences: Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles at Syria was a tactical political masterstroke worthy of Vladimir Putin. The Syria strike shattered the political coalitions gathered against Trump and assembled new ones from the pieces.
First and foremost, Trump won over the blob. The mainstream U.S. foreign policy community has harbored deep misgivings about Trump since the early days of his candidacy. But they certainly weren’t happy about Obama, either, especially when it came to Syria. In recent days, a number of former Obama officials have retroactively criticized his decision not to intervene in Syria, both on and, most colorfully, off the record.
Obama saw this coming. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, he denounced the traditional formulas of American power. “There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” Obama said. “The playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses.” But, he explained, “In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook.”
In attacking Syria, Trump saw the political utility of playing by the rules once again. A foreign-policy community weary of its antagonism to the grand office of the president would snap in line behind him. And snap in it did, just as soon as the cable networks broke in with somber anchors explaining that America was, once again, unleashing its arsenal over Middle Eastern skies.
Trump’s moves allow him to draw a sharp line between himself and Obama, winning over many critics from the heart of the American foreign policy mainstream. The Senate’s two key Republican foreign policy voices, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, issued a statement in strong support of the strike, noting that Trump had marked a distinction from the Obama administration and begun establishing U.S. credibility. A leader of the conservative Never Trump movement, Bill Kristol, tweeted that he could support the action if not the man: “He’s the president, not merely ‘Trump.’”
Even the centrist and liberal wings of the blob turned out for Trump. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a blob leader if ever one existed, noted that acting where Obama didn’t gave Trump the chance to define himself as the “new sheriff.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama official who has advocated intervention in Syria in the past, said bluntly: “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria.” Even Hillary Clinton was supportive of the action in remarks she made before the strike.
As a bonus, Trump managed to shed support from a particularly troublesome wing of his coalition: his ardent allies on the political fringe and the far right. Paul Watson of the xenophobic, conspiracy-mongering outlet InfoWars, declared himself “off the Trump train” and tweeted that he would turn his attentions to France’s Marine Le Pen. For her part, Le Pen seemed uncomfortable with the action, declaring her surprise and saying Trump should have waited for an international investigation. Another pro-Trump, pro-Putin ally, Nigel Farage, also seemed taken aback by the actions of his one-time champion, choosing like Le Pen to declare himself “surprised.” But this group carries little weight on foreign policy and can be won back with some care and a few dog-whistle tweets.
Of course, Trump benefited from the groundwork laid by his predecessor. The plan Obama considered for striking Syria was significantly more comprehensive, in part because Syria still maintained the bulk of its chemical weapons stockpiles then. At the time Obama was considering action, Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote that stand-off strikes would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions.” The plan Trump approved looked very different from what Dempsey described, according to a former Obama official: many missiles hitting one largely symbolic target, rather than an effort to hit many targets. Trump didn’t need to achieve the same military effect. He could instead simply do what Tomahawk missiles do best: send a political message.
The ability to send a message with a much smaller mission also enabled Trump to minimize the main risk of attacking Syria—collateral damage to Russian forces operating in the country. Russia has fumed in response, to be sure, but it certainly did not activate its air defenses in Syria. A Kremlin statement implied that the chemical attack itself was a ruse effected by the United States to justify interventionism. “The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons,” it said, while the government cut off existing coordination measures with America, ironically by suspending the deconfliction phone line Trump’s military used to warn Russia that the attack was coming. The false-flag message about chemical weapons is also an opening provided by Obama. By working through the destruction process, Obama opened the door for Trump to make Russia pay for violating its promises.
The pieces were in place for a politically flexible operator to make a bold stroke. Trump could push just hard enough to move the American establishment into its posture of reflexive support for American credibility, but was able to hit lightly enough not to actually harm its most dangerous adversary. And he could do so while utterly repudiating his predecessor’s position, an opportunity made possible only because of the work done by that predecessor. So what if Trump had denounced Obama’s Syria’s policy and decried George W. Bush’s war-mongering? A tactical opportunity presented itself, and he seized it. Once Putin finishes screaming, he may find himself compelled to applaud.