President Trump — who ran a presidential campaign excoriating interventionism, ridiculed the idea of action in Syria, voiced confidence we could leave Bashar al-Assad in place and reintroduced the noxious 1930s “America First” rhetoric — when confronted with the real world threw away all that refuse and launched a retaliatory missile strike on the airfield from which planes carrying sarin gas took off earlier in the week. The Post reported, “The U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield late on Thursday, in the first direct American assault on the government of President Bashar al-Assad since that country’s civil war began six years ago.” It is not clear whether this is an isolated action or part of a larger campaign.
In remarks that could have come from George W. Bush’s or Hillary Clinton’s lips, Trump reminded the country Thursday night in a brief statement of the “horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent.” He continued:
It was a slow and brutal death for so many even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror. Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
Yes, he has discovered Syria is not just a humanitarian but a strategic nightmare. He pledged, “I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice then peace and harmony will prevail.” America stands for justice. Maybe he will now revisit his stance on refugees and plan to slash humanitarian aid in the next budget.
Trump’s actions and words are the best evidence yet that in the real world a policy of retrenchment and indifference to suffering is not sustainable. Advocates of a more robust Syria policy — Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — “Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action” — and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — “By acting decisively against the very facility from which Assad launched his murderous chemical weapons attack, President Trump has made it clear to Assad and those who empower him that the days of committing war crimes with impunity are over” — praised the action, as did Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — “Any country that violates arms-control agreements with the U.S., develops illicit chemical- or nuclear-weapons programs, or supports those countries that do ought to take note.”
The ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.) issued a supportive but measured statement. He declared, “These military strikes against Assad’s arsenal send a clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons.” But he also warned:
I cannot emphasize this enough, any longer-term or larger military operation in Syria by the Trump Administration will need to be done in consultation with the Congress. Furthermore, it is the President’s responsibility to inform the legislative branch and the American people about his larger policy in Syria, as well as the legal basis for this action and any additional military activities in that country.
Going forward, I will work with my colleagues in the Senate to have the Administration clearly articulate a comprehensive strategy for Syria that includes a plan for ending this war and removing Assad. He must be held accountable for his actions, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed that view in a terse statement. “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do. It is incumbent on the Trump administration to come up with a strategy and consult with Congress before implementing it.”
And that really is the rub: What comes next, and what is our strategy for Syria? It surely seems that contrary to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks just a few days ago, we are not willing to stand aside with the false presumption the Syrian people can decide (in the fog of Sarin gas) the fate of Assad. Eliot Cohen, an ardent critic of the president, was pleased to see some action, but remarked to me that Trump’s missile strike was “Better than nothing. How much better than nothing is not clear, until you know what damage is done.” He added: “For this kind of thing to be effective, it really has to hurt the Syrian regime — and one cannot be sure whether or not it has.”
From a personnel standpoint, this is yet another blow to America-Firster Stephen K. Bannon (who perhaps not coincidentally was bounced from the NSC this week). We can be grateful that national security adviser H.R. McMaster (not Michael T. Flynn) and Defense Secretary James Mattis are at the helm. Tillerson will need to get up to speed — fast. From a budgetary standpoint, the action underscores the need — whether this particular action is expanded or not — to rebuild our military. And finally, from the vantage point of politics, Trump may learn that acting and sounding like the commander in chief — not a raving conspiratorialist — will gain the respect of even his harshest critics.