Who is, one has to say, utterly juvenile in his approach to war. He was motivated by a horror of children being poisoned, as he was earlier on in his presidency. Pictures can motivate him to act, but the abstraction of hecatombs of corpses does not. Chemical weapons he views as horrific, but somehow the power drills, the electrodes, the hot irons, the piano wire, the hooks, the bombs filled with nails, for that matter the knives, do not. He boasted about shiny new missiles and telegraphed his punch in time for the Syrians and their allies to prepare for the blow. And when it was all over the inevitable tweet “Mission Accomplished”—a piece of triumphalist idiocy. At least when President George W. Bush spoke underneath a banner with those words it was the sailors who had asked to put it up, not his communications team, let alone the president himself.
This attack was unserious but intended to relieve emotional pressure, a kind of martial onanism masquerading as strategy. Its effects can be compared to the police coming upon a mass murderer, cited multiple times for firearms violations, reloading his AR-15 in the midst of a massacre. The cops step past the twitching bodies, take the weapon, eject the 30-round magazine, take out half a dozen bullets, and return the remainder and the weapon to the murderer with a stern look. They then swagger back to the squad room shouting, “Showed him, didn’t we!”
But, some would say, at least we did something. Surely that is better than nothing? No, it is not. A slight slap preceded by bluster and followed by evasion and more bluster conveys a very precise message, actually, but not the one that the president believes and perhaps some of his advisers have now convinced themselves they have sent. It is that the commander in chief of the American armed forces is an impulsive coward. Real punishment for the purposes of deterring the Syrian regime and others from the use of poison gas would have been more like the fire and fury that President Bill Clinton rained down on Saddam Hussein in 1998. Operation Desert Fox lasted four days, did serious damage, and shook the Iraqi regime.
In this case it would have been air attacks to smash the Syrian air-defense system, destroy helicopters and aircraft, and above all kill a good number of the men who conducted these attacks and the men who ordered them. It would probably have killed some Russians, Iranians, and Hezbollah militia members too. Not proportionally, even then, but something closer to justice, and more importantly, a use of force with a sound strategic purpose.
That would be hazardous in a number of ways, particularly vis-à-vis the Russians. But as it is, Vladimir Putin has yet another piece of evidence that President Donald Trump will steer away from a direct confrontation with him, even though, in any kind of military conflict in the Middle East it would be the Russians, not the Americans, who by far would have the worst of it. He would secretly fear a president who would do that, because he knows that military humiliation has provoked the downfall of more than one czar in the past. So message received: The American enemy will posture and thump his chest, but is afraid to actually stand up to you, even though his air force could blow yours out of the sky and his navy sink yours to the bottom of the sea.