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Opinion Six questions about Trump’s missile attack in Syria

Four things to know about the U.S. airstrikes against Syria (Video: Amanda Erickson, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

President Trump is still basking in the glow off his strong, resolute, manly decision to launch missiles at a Syrian air base in order to punish Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapon attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Sure, it was in direct contradiction to everything that he had said about Syria for years, including his repeated insistence that President Obama not attack the Assad regime — even after a significantly worse chemical attack in 2013. But the media swooned (after all, there’s nothing they love more than military action), and for a president obsessed with his image, nothing could be more important.

But now, there are some pressing questions about this attack and its aftermath which are going to have to be answered. Let’s go through them:

Did the Trump administration’s missile attack make the Syrian people any safer? If you were a resident of Khan Sheikhoun, you wouldn’t have had a lot of time to contemplate your newfound security, because within a day, planes were taking off from the air base the Trump administration had targeted, and the Assad regime was once again bombing your town. So while you might not have to worry about being poisoned for a while, you still might be blown to bits by conventional arms.

This is a microcosm of the position in which the Syrian populace finds itself. Bashar al-Assad managed to kill around a half million of his citizens with bombs and guns, yet only when some of those citizens are gassed does the United States say, “This is so unacceptable that we’ll take action.” That enables us to tell ourselves that we have firm moral convictions guiding our decisions that transcend any political or even practical considerations, when the truth is that we really don’t.

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Did the missile strike make the end of Assad’s regime any more likely? In immediate terms, not at all. The damage to that one air base was minimal, and the damage to the regime was essentially zero. We can only theorize about why Assad wanted to use chemical weapons — as far as I can tell, the best explanation is that he wanted to show his enemies that he’s willing to do anything, in order to sap their morale — but we do know that they have no particular tactical value. As he has shown over the course of this war, he’s more than capable of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians with conventional weapons.

Did the missile strike make the United States any safer? It’s hard to argue that it did, unless you’re going to claim that only showing we’re “strong” will deter our enemies. But given the fact that every U.S. president in modern times has invaded someplace or bombed someplace or both, the idea that terrorists around the world are waiting for signs of American weakness before deciding to attack us is something only a child (or, let’s be honest, a president) with no understanding of history could possibly believe.

Does the administration know whether it wants Assad to go or not? Every time someone from the administration is asked whether regime change is the U.S policy, they say something slightly different. Before the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that the U.S. wasn’t seeking Assad’s ouster. Now they’re saying something different. “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen,” Haley said on Sunday, while Tillerson said there had been no change in U.S. policy, and brought up Libya as a cautionary tale of how regime change can go wrong.

When National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was asked on “Fox News Sunday” to clarify things, he said that both Haley and Tillerson are right, and went on:

“And so, to do that, what’s required is some kind of a political solution to that very complex problem. And what Ambassador Haley pointed out is it’s very difficult to understand how a political solution could result from the continuation of the Assad regime.
“Now, we are not saying that we are the ones who are going to affect that change. What we are saying is, other countries have to ask themselves some hard questions. Russia should ask themselves, what are we doing here? Why are we supporting this murderous regime that is committing mass murder of its own population and using the most heinous weapons available?
“So, I think that while people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in the statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria.”

So: it is the policy of the Trump administration that Assad has to go, but we’re not going to be the ones to make it happen.

I should also note that FNS host Chris Wallace asked McMaster directly whether it was the administration’s policy that as long as Assad kills civilians with conventional weapons we won’t do anything about it, and McMaster essentially said yes without saying yes, by repeating what a “strong message” we had sent to Assad about chemical weapons.

Does the administration have any coherent policy on Syria at all? Actually, it seems it does. Here’s the simplified version:

  1. The first priority is defeating ISIS.
  2. If Assad uses chemical weapons against civilians, we’ll launch some missiles at a military base; if he uses conventional weapons against civilians, we probably won’t do anything.
  3. Once ISIS is defeated, Assad should go, but we aren’t going to take military action to make that happen.

You might think that’s a good policy or a bad policy, but it isn’t hard to understand.

Does the administration have a coherent foreign policy in general? One of the reasons the strike in Syria was significant is that it seemed to be in contradiction to Trump’s “America First” doctrine. We’re told, whether it’s true or not (I’m skeptical), that Trump undertook this strike because he was so moved by photos of the victims of the attack in Khan Sheikhoun. That means it was about taking a moral stance, not just figuring out what was in the narrow interests of the United States.

Foreign policy “doctrines” are overrated — being able to reduce your policy to a bumper sticker-sized slogan doesn’t mean that it’s any wiser or more effective than one that can’t be described so succinctly. But it does help to have some guiding principles that help everyone — your own government, Congress, both allies and adversaries overseas — understand what you’re trying to achieve. And it doesn’t appear that there’s much of a structure underlying U.S. policy, beyond whatever President Trump thinks of what he saw on cable news that day.

So here’s a prediction: within a matter of weeks or even days, Syria is going to fade from the American media and political agenda. On the ground there, civilians will keep dying, but here at home we’ll go back to thinking of it as a terrible tragedy, but not something we can do much about (which isn’t entirely wrong). And President Trump’s missile strike will look less like a masterstroke of strength and resolve, and more like what it really was: a purely symbolic act with virtually no effect on the ground.