There’s a fascinating passage in Martin Wolff’s Fire and Fury that details the steps Trump’s aides had to go to in order to convince the President to give approval for a retaliatory strike against Syrian use of gas attacks. The generals tried power points, briefs, executive summaries and any other medium at their disposal to sell to Trump the need to act. He wouldn’t budge – it was not an American problem. Then Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump showed him a two-minute video of the victims of the attack, many of whom were children, collapsing on the floor, foaming at the mouth. Within hours there were Tomahawk missiles headed for Syria.
The passage is instructive. When it comes to serious issues like war and peace, it seems the US President makes decisions impulsively, and with an emotional, rather than rational, motive. That is why the Assad regime’s latest transgression could never go unpunished. Sunday morning’s strikes against the Syrian capital, launched by a formidable alliance of Nato powers, were a bold statement from the West that it will not accept Assad’s brand of illegal terror. Ha.
Yes, the airstrikes conducted last week are a net positive. There is now one less chemical weapons factory in the world. But beyond that, the strikes bear little impact on the Syrian theatre of war. The West has no endgame, as Assad has already won. The number of confirmed chemical attacks in Syria have risen from five in 2013 to 11 in 2017, and a total of 34 in that period. The public would be hard pressed to recall more than three – this most recent one, the attack Trump retaliated against in 2017, and the most important one of all – in 2013.
Because while President Trump’s decision-making is dubious, the options he has to choose from are crafted by a cadre of White House professionals. Foremost among these, at the time of writing, are Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor John Bolton. The two former are generals, and the latter is a Bush 43-era foreign policy hawk of Dick Cheney-like dimensions. And they all have a lasting grievance with what happened in 2013 – when Obama drew his famous red line on the use of chemical weapons, and then let Assad tow it. That decision, or lack of decision, is what many politicos perceive as the moment when the Kremlin realised that America was no longer a guarantor of international law. One year later, little green men invaded Crimea.
Meanwhile, Trump has endorsed a National Security Strategy that labels Russia a ‘revisionist power’ that uses ‘modernised forms of subversive tactics’ to ‘interfere in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world.’ Last week’s intervention was, first and foremost, about Trump proving to the electorate, Russia, other global powers and himself that he was capable of doing what Obama was not: sticking to his guns. In the future, we can expect more impulsive assertions of American power, frequently backed by France and Britain, but with the same erratic undertones as this one. Trump, and his neocon staff, have a great vision, but no strategy. When the Iran Deal is to be reviewed later in the year, and the much-hyped meeting with Kim Jong Un is confirmed, that is something to keep in mind.
‘Mission accomplished’. Heard that before.