Seven Lessons From Trump's Syria Strike
The attack raises a series of questions about the president’s approach to America’s political processes and institutions.
When the Electoral College elevated Donald Trump to the presidency, it conferred on him the awesome life-and-death powers that attend the office. It was inevitable that President Trump would use those powers sooner or later. Now he has. For the effects on the region, I refer you to the powerful piece by The Atlantic’s Andrew Exum. I’m concerned here with the effects on the U.S. political system. Seven seem most immediately relevant.
Trump’s Words Mean Nothing
If there was any one foreign policy position that Donald Trump stressed above all others, it was opposition to the use of force in Syria. Time has helpfully compiled Trump’s tweets on the subject dating back to 2013. For example:
We should stay the hell out of Syria, the "rebels" are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS?ZERO— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2013
These were not the idle thoughts of a distracted mind. Promises of no war in Syria were central to Donald Trump’s anti-Hillary Clinton messaging. Take, for example, to his interview with Reuters on October 26, 2016.
“What we should do is focus on ISIS. We should not be focusing on Syria," said Trump, as he dined on fried eggs and sausage at his Trump National Doral golf resort. "You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton. You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?”
That message—a vote for Clinton is a vote for World War III beginning in Syria—was pounded home by surrogates and by Trump’s social-media troll army.
Not even 100 days into his presidency, Trump has done exactly what he attacked Hillary Clinton for contemplating.
Some have described this reverse as “hypocritical.” This description is not accurate. A hypocrite says one thing while inwardly believing another. The situation with Donald Trump is much more alarming. On October 26, 2016, he surely meant what he said. It’s just that what he meant and said that day was no guide to what he would mean or say on October 27, 2016—much less April 6, 2017.
Voters and citizens can expect literally zero advance warning of what Donald Trump will do or won’t do. Campaign promises, solemn pledges—none are even slightly binding. If he can reverse himself on Syria, he can reverse himself on anything. If you feel betrayed by any of these reversals, you have no right to complain. As I wrote during the campaign:
When [Trump] issued a promise, he instantly contradicted it. If you chose to accept the promise anyway, you did so with abundant notice of its worthlessness. For all the times Trump said believe me and trust me in his salesman patter, he communicated constantly and in every medium that there was only thing you could believe and trust: If you voted for Donald Trump, you’d get Donald Trump, in all his Trumpery and Trumpiness.
The television networks that promoted Trump; the primary voters who elevated him; the politicians who eventually surrendered to him; the intellectuals who argued for him, and the donors who, however grudgingly, wrote checks to him—all of them knew, by the time they made their decisions, that Trump lied all the time, about everything.
Trump Does Not Give Reasons
From the Declaration of Independence onward, American statesmen have felt bound to offer reasons why they did things, and most especially why they resorted to force. Here’s the second paragraph of Bill Clinton’s December 1998 speech on his “Desert Fox” operation: "I want to explain why I have decided, with the unanimous recommendation of my national security team, to use force in Iraq, why we have acted now, and what we hope to accomplish.” Richard Nixon opened his speech announcing the entry of US forces into Cambodia in 1970 in a similar way: “Tonight, I shall describe the actions of the enemy, the actions I have ordered to deal with that situation, and the reasons for my decision.”
Donald Trump does not speak in that way. On the night of his Syria strike, he spoke directly to emotions. "Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless 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.” He then asserted: "It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons." The obvious question is: what’s different this time from 2013, when Bashar al-Assad previously inflicted mass casualties with chemical weapons and Donald Trump and Republicans saw no such vital interest? Trump offers not even the semblance of a response. He sees; he feels; he acts. He makes no effort to persuade doubters or skeptics.
Reasons legitimate authority. Trump does not care about legitimation. In his vision of politics, the governors are to command; the governed, to defer.
Trump Does Not Care About Legality
In August 2013, Trump insisted that President Obama needed congressional approval before striking Syria. Obama came to agree. He sought approval and was refused. No strike followed.
On what basis did Donald Trump act in 2017? President Obama rested all his many military actions throughout the greater Middle East on the September 2001 authorization by Congress:
That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
That authorization has been stretched and stretched and stretched. It even supplied the legal basis for Obama’s overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya. But there’s a limit even to the most generous definition of authority, and in Syria, we reached it. To the extent al Qaida is present in Syria—it’s on the other side of the war from Bashar al-Assad. One could argue (and Trump has argued!) that by fighting Assad, the U.S. would help al-Qaida and its ideological successor, ISIS. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to switch sides. But where’s the legal warrant? Trump disdains the very question.
Trump Disregards Government Processes
In the next hours, journalists will be told a story about the decision-making process that produced the Syria strike. The first reports are not confidence inspiring. Mike Allen in Axios:
The White House sees this as "leadership week": the decision to order a missile strike on Syria after its deadly nerve-agent attack on its own citizens, including children; a prime-time announcement to the nation from Mar-a-Lago last night, in which Trump said, "God bless America and the entire world"; his assertive stance on North Korea, with the rogue state testing him by firing a ballistic missile; and meetings with the heads of state of Egypt, Jordan and, continuing today, China.
But here’s one thing we already know: There can have been no proper interagency process before the strike, because none of the relevant agencies of government other than the Department of Defense is properly staffed to join such a process. You can’t have a deputies’ meeting without deputies.
Every decision presents risks and costs, and any responsible decision maker insists on a detailed itemization of those risks and those costs. That cannot have happened here. Trump has walked into a military confrontation that implicates regional and global security with only the haziest notion of what might go wrong. One friend of mine has warned: “If it were good foreign policy, Trump wouldn’t be doing it.” Foreign policy is hard, and even the best process does not guarantee good outcomes. Sometimes you get lucky, and can escape the consequences of a bad process. But the odds are the odds. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, bad processes lead to ugly results.
Trump Has No Allies
In his short term in office, Trump has stumbled into quarrels with Australia, Germany, and China. The list of general gaffes and embarrassments is long and painful.
Unsurprisingly, then, he did not trouble himself to gain allies or partners before the Syria strike. And while Trump has gained some after-the-fact backing from Canada and the United Kingdom, the French and German response has been notably tepid. Germany called the American act “understandable,” but withheld any endorsement, and France did not venture even so far as that. But even from Canada and Britain, there is no inkling of any substantial help. A go-it-alone foreign policy goes it alone.
Trump Envisions No End State
“Every war must end,” according to the wise heads of foreign policy. Someday too the Syria war will end. As a candidate, Donald Trump insisted that the United States should never join a war without a clear vision of such an end. As he said in his speech to the Center for the National Interest in April 2016 (where the Russian ambassador sat in the front row untroubled by the company of any NATO ally except Italy):
I will not hesitate to deploy military force when there is no alternative. But if America fights, it must fight to win. I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary – and will only do so if we have a plan for victory.
Military force has been deployed. Whers’s the plan for victory? What’s even the definition of victory? Absent and absent. What Trump has done is the kind of military action famously derided by George W. Bush as firing a $2 million missile into a $10 tent and hitting a camel in the butt. Trump’s strike was symbolic and demonstrative, not decisive. It signaled, but did not compel. It leaves the Syrian and Russian leadership an array of options about how to respond—and it may well have committed the United States to potential next steps that the president did not imagine and does not intend.
Trump Is Lucky in His Opponents
“The secret of our success in government is that we did not have us in opposition.” That quip from a friend in an allied government applies with even greater force to the Republican Party of the United States. Trump’s action has gained support from Democrats that was never available to Obama from Republicans. In the fall of 2013, even the hawkish Marco Rubio—who had long called for action in Syria against Assad—nevertheless opposed Obama’s request for authorization to do just that. Rubio’s explanation focused on the flaws in Obama strategy and commitment. “I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work … I believe that U.S. military action of the type contemplated here will prove counterproductive.”
Rubio’s points surely had some validity. Surely they apply even more forcefully today—yet Democrats from Chuck Schumer to Nancy Pelosi to even Elizabeth Warren have offered support for Trump’s actions. Pelosi praised the action as "proportional.” Schumer went further still: “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do.”
Unlike Rubio, who understood that viability in the coming Republican presidential contest required absolute opposition to any action by Obama, Democrats operate in a more permissive environment—at least for now. If any further proof is required of the asymmetry of the two parties, here it is.