Bombardiers have a tradition of writing slogans on the bombs they drop on their enemies. Donald Trump might as well have scrawled ‘I’m Not Obama’ on the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles US forces directed at a Syrian airbase on Friday. The bombardment came in response to a chemical attack the Assad government allegedly launched a few days earlier against a town in rebel-held Idlib province that left 69 people dead.
Trump’s desire for big wins has previously kept him out of the Syrian conflict and focused instead on the Islamic State, which has been losing its grip over territory in recent months.
But Trump also wants to demonstrate that he’s bigger and better than Barack Obama: He’s more popular, attracted more people to his inauguration, proposed a better health-care plan, has bigger hands, and so on. Obama failed to attack Syria after a high-profile chemical attack in 2013. Here was an opportunity for Trump to show his resolve. After sustaining non-stop attacks against his character, his policies, and his advisers over the last several months, Trump has finally hit back with the tools that, unfortunately, are now at his disposal.
Yet it was not much of a show of force. The airbase was not damaged enough to prevent the Syrian government from restoring it to full operational status within a couple days. And Syrian forces subsequently re-bombed the very same town that had suffered the chemical attack. The Trump administration has not followed up with any other demonstrations of power, nor does it seem likely to do so.
The problem isn’t so much geopolitical, though the United States risks an outright confrontation with Russia if it escalates. Rather, the problem for Trump is domestic.
Standard-issue hawks, like John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), are urging Trump to go the next step toward regime change. So are the neocons, as Jim Lobe points out:
The neocons, who have rarely met a slippery military slope they weren’t tempted to roll down, embraced wholeheartedly both the strike and its justification. They view it as a first – but absolutely necessary – step toward a new phase of US interventionism of precisely the kind that Bannon and his ‘nationalist’and Islamophobic allies abhor.
The nationalists and the libertarians have indeed reacted in horror. Richard Spencer, the darling of the far-right, not only condemned the attack but even suggested that he would support Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) in 2020 (presumably because she’s sat down with both Assad and Trump, a tyrannical twofer). Ron Paul wrote that Trump’s assertion that the missile attack was vital to US national interests was ‘nonsense’.
Good luck trying to preserve such a fickle coalition. To do so, Trump will probably refocus his military attention, as Rex Tillerson has suggested, on the Islamic State. The limited missile strike accomplished its goal, which wasn’t to cripple Syrian forces in any serious way. Rather, the attack put distance between Trump and Obama, reminded both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un that Trump is trigger-happy when necessary, regained some credit with European allies (France, Germany, and the president of the European Council all pledged their support), and did the minimum of damage to warn the Russians not to take Trump for granted.
In this way, Trump is proving just as reluctant to engage in large-scale military adventures as his predecessor. Before you rejoice that the wolf has revealed his inner fleece, however, remember that the Trump administration has been in some ways more willing to use military force than the Obama administration.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Trump’s New Foreign Policy Is the Worst of Both Worlds’.