Friday, April 07, 2017

A few points about last night's strike against Syria

(1) I think every recent president (from at least Reagan on) would have done something like what President Trump did yesterday, a limited strike to signal that the use of chemical weapons are unacceptable. (That was pretty much how the U.S. dealt with Saddam Hussein between the Gulf War and the Iraq War. Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II all did limited or "pinprick strikes" to signal their disapproval for what Saddam did or didn't do).

And yes, I believe that even Obama would have ordered a strike on Syria if he were still in office. It is true that when Assad used chemical weapons on his watch, he cut a deal with Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons (to avert a larger military campaign). But Assad's recent chemical weapon attack was a breach of that deal. Obama would have felt he had to show there were consequences.

(2) The big question is whether the U.S. strike is now over, or if this was just the first volley of a longer military campaign against Assad. If it is the latter, that would be something that I don't think any other recent president would do, and would be another example of the recklessness of our current president. But maybe he won't do that. Trump is not just reckless, he can also be unpredictable. I really have no idea what he will do now.

(3) It looks like last night's attack was carefully crafted to avoid hitting the Russians, their planes, or missile defenses. Russia was warned of the attack before it happened. The Trump administration is clearly trying to keep good relations with that country. In the short term, at least, that did not work. But maybe Russia felt like it had to do something. It remains to be seen whether this represents an end to the Trump Administration's pro-Russian stance.

(4) If the anti-Assad military effort was limited to what happened last night, it could actually work to restrain Assad from using chemical weapons in the future. The chemical weapon attack came right after Secretary of State Tillerson announced that the Trump Administration was no longer seeking Assad's removal from office. It is possible that statement gave Assad enough comfort with his position to use chemical weapons in his effort to regain control of the country. (It is also possible that Assad would have gassed them anyway. But some commentators, including Senator Rubio, see a causal connection). If that was true, and Assad would only allow chemical weapons to be used if he felt secure with the U.S., then last night's attack might plausibly deter him in the future. Since Russia also has an incentive to pursue a closer relationship with the U.S. and because Russia is allied with Assad, the Russians could use the American attack to tell Assad to cut it out or else they might not be able to protect him anymore.

(5) Last night's strike should not be read as American entry into the war in Syria. The U.S. was already in Syria, with ground troops and everything. The big deal with last night's attack is it added Assad's forces as a target for the U.S. military. Before the U.S. was just targeting ISIS and militant groups it claimed were linked to al Qaeda. So rather than being a new country attacked by the U.S. this is just deepening U.S. involvement in a conflict that it was already in.

(6) I really believe Trump would not have ordered this attack if not for his fixation on Obama's alleged mistake of not attacking Syria after the 2013 chemical weapons attack. Trump is obsessed with blaming his predecessor for everything that is bad in the world and feels he must distinguish himself from Obama. There were reports that Trump approved the disastrous Yemen raid earlier this year because he was told that Obama would not do it. Given how many times Trump has brought up Obama's "red lines" and what he claims was the resulting loss of American respect when Obama did not retaliate with military force, it is inconceivable that Trump wouldn't jump at the chance to show everyone he will do things differently.

None of the above should be read as my approval of what happened last night. I actually think it was a bad idea. I don't think it was as unprecedented or unusual as many are assuming it is. The U.S. does shit like this fairly regularly. The only difference this time is we have an ignorant and impulsive commander in chief calling the shots, which means he might not have the sense to limit involvement.

UPDATE (4/7/17): WTF. Was the whole strike a fake? Or did the Russians give the Syrians warning without the U.S.'s knowledge?