That was also the presumed purpose of Trump's last missile attack on Syria, less than a year ago. Trump supporters claimed that attack sent a forceful "message," too -- to Assad, to Putin, the Chinese, and others. "With just one strike that message was sent to all these people," claimed former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka.
The situation in Syria did not perceptibly change after that attack. And the day after this latest airstrike, Assad launched a new round of airstrikes of his own.
These airstrikes seem more performative than tactical -- warfare as theater, but with real lives at stake. There must be better ways to send a message.
- Why isn't the full range of U.S. activity in Syria getting more coverage?
Thanks to widespread under-reporting of U.S. involvement in Syria, commentators can complain about "years of unmasterly inactivity by the democracies" with a straight face, wrongly blaming that nation's disasters on a failure to intervene.
In a paragraph that was subsequently deleted from its website, the Washington Post wrote that the latest airstrikes "capped nearly a week of debate in which Pentagon leaders voiced concerns that an attack could pull the United States into Syria's civil war." As of this writing, that language can still be found in syndicated versions of the article.
We were pulled into that civil war a long time ago. The United States has more than 2,000 troops in Syria, a fact that was not immediately revealed to the American people. That figure is understated, although the Pentagon will not say by how much, since it excludes troops on classified missions and some Special Forces personnel.
Before Trump raised the troop count, the CIA was spending $1 billion per year supporting anti-government militias under President Obama. That hasn't prevented a rash of commentary complaining about U.S. "inaction" in Syria before Trump took office. It didn't prevent additional chaos and death, either -- and probably made the situation worse.
- Where are the advocates for a smarter national security policy?
There's been very little real debate inside the national security establishment about the wisdom of these strikes, and what debate there has been has focused on the margins. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a senior State Department official under Secretary Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration, tweeted:
"I believe that the U.S., U.K, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough."
In other words: This attack will not achieve any tactical goals or save any lives. And it is illegal -- just as chemical weapons attacks are illegal -- under international law. It's illegal under U.S. law, too, which is the primary focus of Democratic criticism.
But, says Slaughter, the amorphous goals of "drawing a line" and "saying enough" make it worthwhile, for reasons that are never articulated.
Michele Flournoy, who served as Under Secretary of Defense under President Obama and was considered a leading Defense Secretary prospect in a Hillary Clinton Administration, said:
"What Trump got right: upheld the international norm against [chemical weapon] use, built international support for and participation in the strikes, sought to minimize collateral damage -- Syrian, Russian, Iranian.
"What Trump got wrong: continuing to use taunting, name-calling tweets as his primary form of (un)presidential communication; failing to seriously consult Congress before deciding to launch the strikes; after more than a year in office, still no coherent Syria strategy."
How can a country uphold international norms by violating international law?
If Trump lacks a coherent Syria policy, he has company. Obama's policy toward Syria shifted and drifted. Hillary Clinton backed Trump's last round of airstrikes and proposed a "no-fly" policy for Syria that could have quickly escalated into open confrontation with Russia.
The country deserves a rational alternative to Trump's impulsivity and John Bolton's extreme bellicosity and bigotry. When it comes to foreign policy, we need a real opposition party. What will it take to develop one?
- "Take On" Russia? Really?
Commentators have been pushing Trump to take aggressive military action in Syria, despite the potential for military conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. MSNBC's Dana Bash accused Trump of "an inexplicable lack of resolve regarding Russia" -- leaving the audience to make its own inferences -- adding, "We have not been willing to take them on."