What Lies Behind the Missile Attack in Syria?
Donald Trump would not be the first leader to try to revive his flagging fortunes by embarking on a foreign adventure. The missile attack he authorised on a Syrian airfield comes after his Presidency has suffered a decidedly shaky opening few weeks.
His term so far has seen one failure piled on another. He has not been able to break free from the constant suspicion that Vladimir Putin had a hand in his election; and, on that account, he has lost some of his most senior appointments and has soured his relations with his intelligence services. That issue is now under investigation by a Congressional committee.
Then he failed both to put in place a legally effective travel ban on visitors from mainly Muslim countries, and to get the support of his Republican majority in Congress for the replacement of Obamacare by his own healthcare legislation – both suggesting strongly that he does not know how Washington works and that the “deal-maker” cannot even persuade his own side.
Add to that some unlikely appointments made in critical areas like education and the environment, and his inability to separate business affairs from Presidential responsibilities, capped off by his delegation of many of those responsibilities to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner – someone entirely untried, unqualified, and unelected.
Little wonder, then, that his eyes lit up when he saw the coverage of the chemical weapons attack on civilians, including children, by forces loyal to President Assad in Syria. There is no reason, of course, to suppose that he was not genuinely moved by the graphic pictures of dying children.
But he would also have seen the possibilities of immediate redemption in the eyes of US voters. Here was a chance to make common emotional ground with millions of Americans, and to do something dramatic of which they would approve. He could show how decisive he is (hoping, on this issue, to point up a contrast with his predecessor), he could show himself ready to confront the Russians – whatever the doubts about his links to them – and he could impress the world (and not least President Xi of China whom he was hosting at Mar-a-Lago at the time) with his unpredictability.
Since most of us would want to see President Assad and his Russian supporters held to account for a heinous war crime, why would we not join in the applause for the missile attack? Is this not the kind of leadership that the “free world” has been waiting for?
There are, though, several good reasons for restraining our enthusiasm. Let us recall, first, that the most recent exercise in using Western military force against a Middle Eastern dictator – the invasion of Iraq – proved to be disastrous and is almost certainly the genesis of most of the problems we have faced in the region since.
Like the Iraq war, the missile strike in Syria paid scant regard to international law and was totally lacking in United Nations endorsement. It was instead a unilateral decision taken at short notice by a bombastic populist seeking to shore up his support at home.
It represented an almost complete volte face on the part of a President who had, up till that point, been more inclined to support Assad than to condemn him. And it was taken in response, not to careful and mature consideration, but to television pictures watched – one imagines – late at night and in lonely isolation. Is that how we want momentous decisions that might threaten world peace to be taken?
Such a “shoot from the hip” approach has something of the Wild West about it. We cannot afford a US President who sees himself as the Sheriff, ready to act as the world’s law enforcement officer and to blunder into complex international situations, fists (or missiles) swinging. What thought was given to the possibility of military conflict with the Russian forces already in Syria, to the impact on relations with regional powers like Iraq and Iran, or to the boost to the recruiting efforts of Isis?
And isn’t world peace and order better preserved by considered international action rather than by the idiosyncratic overnight impulse of a maverick, however many missiles he has at his disposal?
Launching a military adventure is not enough to make good a loss of confidence in the decision-maker. It is the confidence that has to come first; the action can come once the confidence is established.
9 April 2017.