North Africa, West Asia

Why strike Syria, Trump?

Waging war and licensing military conflict is as big as it gets. We must be cautious of spurring on a president we can’t trust.

Will Murray
25 April 2017
Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

President Donald Trump. Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.While the repainting of a red line against this brutal regime is welcome, Trump’s airstrikes were called for his own sake, not for the sake of the Syrian people. We cannot afford to embolden someone so erratic any further.

For the last year or so, there has been a familiar sense of unease that comes just before I refresh my newsfeeds. Mainly, what’s Trump done next?

Accustomed to the fits of outrage that follow most of Trump’s daily ventures in my echo-chamber, it was a surprise to find a different reaction on the morning of April 7. That day the #STOPTRUMP movement seemed to be put on hold as the president’s decision to use airstrikes in response to Assad’s sarin gas attack was met with a chorus of praise.

Condemning Trump’s inaction hours before, the hosts of CNN fawned over the president. Senator John McCain who called for an independent Trump-Russia Commission said he “deserved the support of the American people.”

In the UK, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron who signed a letter in January labelling the president as “dangerous and divisive,” who “threatens disarmament and peace,” also backed the bombings.

Clearly it puts opponents of the president in a tight spot – to back military strikes against a dictator, you must support a leader you don’t trust. Outlawed since the 1925 Geneva Protocol, the prohibition of poisonous gas and chemical weapons is a long established norm in foreign policy.

However, the Russian veto at the Security Council forces a state to act around the UN to defend it. In August 2013, Barack Obama was regarded to have made a grave error when he failed to enforce what he labelled a ‘red line’, following Assad’s first use of chemical weapons against his own people.

The ramifications of this failure to act were felt at a global scale. At the time Secretary of State, John Kerry said the red line “is directly related to our credibility.”  As it would play out, Obama’s inaction set an extremely dangerous precedent.

The repercussions have American power waning ever since. The following year an emboldened Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. In Syria, Russia continued to expand its influence, assisting the Assad regime with an air offensive that escalated the conflict and prolonged a bloody civil war to keep its ally in power.

Over time the Obama Doctrine, unofficially titled as ‘don’t do stupid shit’, did not manage to solve the conflict. America did not do enough, and on April 4 Obama’s diplomatic achievements unravelled as Assad grossly violated the chemical weapons treaty signed by the US and Russia in 2013.

“This tragedy underscores the dangers of trying to do deals with dictators,” said Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia under Obama.

So Trump might have made the right call. This grandstanding, this show of strength, this message is exactly how Putin and Assad play politics. It showed there is limit to how brutally you can attack your own civilians. The US can once again be relied upon to defend international norms.

We must be wary of this sudden focus on foreign policy as a means to drum up jingoism, increase support and muddy the waters.

Yet something’s not quite right. Consider again the sharp abruptness of this U-Turn.

Days earlier Trump’s team defended their ‘America First’, isolationist policy on Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on March 30, Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people,” echoed by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, and White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

Supposedly the chemical attacks had a dramatic effect on Trump, spurred to act by his daughter Ivanka. Taking his own words, this attack on “beautiful babies,” and “children of God,” gave cause for a radical rethink. 

But why suddenly jump to the defence of the very children he rejected from fleeing to the US?

Had the awesome power of the Oval Office moved him to act? Why, following such a miraculous revelation was the refugee ban not reconsidered?

Trump’s vanity, over his sympathy for the people of Syria should not be written off. This is an unpopular president with a host of internal problems and currently under investigation for collusion with the Russians. We must be wary of this sudden focus on foreign policy as a means to drum up jingoism, increase support and muddy the waters.

Firstly Trump is desperate to be seen as better than Obama. He constantly boasts of superior policies, to apparently larger crowd sizes at his inauguration. This fixation is reported by many to have started at the 2011 White House correspondents dinner, when Obama humiliated Trump following the ‘birther movement’. Commenting on that night, Roger Stone, a close advisor and ally of Trump, said “I think that is the night that he resolves to run for president… ‘I think that he is kind of motivated by it. ‘Maybe I’ll just run. Maybe I’ll show them all.”

On Syria, since 2011 Trump has revelled in Obama’s shortcomings. Now in power, Trump’s initial response to the sarin gas attack on April 4 was to call it “a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”  By launching airstrikes, he could be seen to correct this mistake and be seen as the president who did what the calm, wise former law professor couldn’t. 

For a president desperate to make an impression, airstrikes are an easy way to project power. Despite the self proclaimed “most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency,” so far Trump’s team are yet to make a lasting impression. Thwarted on his ‘unconstitutional’ Muslim travel ban, last month Trump was forced to cancel the vote for the new healthcare bill that would repeal Obamacare. 

Prior to the airstrikes, Trump’s popularity was the lowest ever of any American president. Since his inauguration, Trump has been regularly mocked by late night comics, and furthermore a global resistance movement has been growing from the Global Women’s march, to the UK’s Stop Trump protests.  

For someone famously thin skinned, the decision enables Trump to look presidential. By confronting Assad, he gets to play the hero and subsequently has gained support in the political centre.

The airstrikes were also conducted at a convenient time for Trump, diverting focus from the ongoing Russia probe. Since the resignation of Michael Flynn, evidence continues to mount of ties between Trump’s team and the Russian government.

The morning before the strikes, The Washington Post reported the UAE had allegedly attempted to set up a secret back-channel line of communication between Russian officials and Trump ally Erik Prince who would act as an unofficial spokesperson.

Could airstrikes have been used as a way for Trump to blow away the Russia scandal? The extent to which this is orchestrated is unclear, yet it begs the question. Despite what US intelligence say there are conflicting reports as to whether Russia had advance knowledge of Assad’s attacks.

we must be cautious about how far we lend support to Trump. It runs the risk of condoning an overly aggressive shift in foreign policy.

If the Russians did know about it, it’s an odd move to alienate the most pro Russian administration in history. Why provoke the guy they helped to get elected? It’s also important to consider the potential for screw ups in international affairs. Russia may have miscalculated the US’ response, or suffered a communication failure that meant orders never got passed high enough in time.

Deliberate or not, Trump’s team have seized this as opportunity to shake off the idea he’s a Russian stooge. As a result, Trump is praised for his actions. He can then send Rex Tillerson, Putin’s long time business associate and recipient of the ‘order of friendship’ to smooth things over. But crucially, he is able to announce US-Russia relations are at “an all time low.” This puts to bed any suspicion of cohesion between the two countries and with it the risk of Trump being impeached. Problem solved.

So while the the decision might have been right to retaliate against the use of chemical weapons, we must be cautious about how far we lend support to Trump. It runs the risk of condoning an overly aggressive shift in foreign policy. 

On North Korea, Trump has said repeatedly the US is not afraid to “act alone.” He recently ‘put Iran on notice’ and in Afghanistan the US military just dropped the largest ‘non-nuclear’ bomb in history.

How will someone like Trump react to his first taste of the supposed ‘glories’ of war? This is a heavy toll on anyone. Take the impact of the Kosovo war on the young and mild mannered, Tony Blair, the triumph of which political scientist Oliver Daddow believes had a significant impact on his fixation with interventionism, ending with Iraq in 2003.

Acting in a calm and restrained way is not how Trump operates. This is a man who revels in telling China’s President Xi about the airstrikes over chocolate cake, who boasted how he wants to kill the families of terrorists and bring back torture. Reportedly during his campaign Trump asked a foreign policy advisor three times “if we have nuclear weapons – why can’t we use them?”

Waging war and licensing military conflict is as big as it gets. At this level, the weight of power is heavy. We must be cautious of spurring on a president we can’t trust.

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