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Trump’s Shortsighted Intervention in Syria

Realism and Idealism Before April 6

The reaction of the Trump administration to the Syrian government’s use of sarin against innocent civilians raises important, and never resolved, questions about the role of moral issues and democratic values in US foreign policy. Every US administration has, to one extent or another, embraced both realism and idealism in the conduct of foreign policy, both elements accounting for Condoleezza Rice’s statement years ago that “great powers don’t just mind their own business.” By the same token, every administration—including Jimmy Carter’s, famous for giving human rights priority—has put realpolitik ahead of values when a choice had to be made. Donald Trump is no exception, even if the sight of the women and children who were victims of the sarin attack really did have a “big impact” on him.

To some analysts, Trump’s arrival heralds a very different foreign policy path: transactional nationalism. In plain English, that means looking to “America first”: dealing with other countries on the sole basis of what they concretely offer the US, especially economic advantages such business opportunities and better terms of trade, but also counterterrorism support. On the other hand, transactional nationalism means ending US moralizing about freedom, human rights, international law, and other liberal principles. I’m not “president of the world,” Trump has said. By extension, the nationalism of others—underpinned by their claimed spheres of influence—must also be accepted. That leaves the field open to autocrats who attach little importance to human rights, civil society, and democracy. Governments are led to expect little criticism from Washington as they impose their will on others in the name of their national interest. Russia is free to retain Crimea and support separatists in eastern Ukraine. China can crack down on ethnic groups, limit democracy in Hong Kong, and expand its hold on the South China Sea islands without concern about US interference. Israel can maintain its settlements in the West Bank and continue to infringe on the rights of Palestinians.

Bashar al-Assad in Syria surely read what Trump and his foreign policy team said about not seeking regime change. “The long-term status of Assad will be determined by the Syrian people,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In other words, they’re on their own. If ever there was a green light for aggressive action, that was it. Nevertheless, Trump authorized a large cruise missile strike, perhaps not coincidentally just as he and Xi Jinping were sitting down to dinner. Why? Has Trump abandoned “America first,” as some right-wingers now worry?

Limited Vision

Trump’s statement that the sight of the victims of the chemical attack “changed very much” his thinking about Syria is not persuasive. As Stephen Zunes points out, his thinking didn’t change earlier when chemical attacks occurred, and certainly hasn’t changed when faced with the substantial casualties caused by US air strikes in Syria and Iraq.

More likely, Trump’s action was an impulsive feel-good move—a chance to proclaim that he was doing what Obama would not, but in a “limited” way that would punish Assad, convey toughness, yet not unduly arouse Russia. The best that can be said of the US missile strike is that it may give Assad and his Russian allies pause on future use of chemical weapons. But the US action amounts to a symbolic slap on the wrist. It does not remove Assad from office or loosen his hold on power, does not change Russia’s support of him, and does not alter the balance of power on the ground in the civil war. And Assad, with Russian jets behind him, may respond—in fact, may already have responded with renewed air strikes—forcing the US either to deepen its involvement or stand aside while more civilians are slaughtered. Trump may soon have to decide whether to ascend the ladder of escalation.

Trump’s announced justifications for the strike raise other questions. One is US interests in Syria: Trump said the missile strike fulfilled a “vital national security interest” in “preventing and deterring” use of chemical weapons, addressing the refugee crisis, and (shades of George W. Bush after 9/11) defending “civilization.” Those reasons, too, fail to stand up. Is use of chemical weapons now as vital an interest as, say, defending European and Asian treaty allies, responding to a threat to the US homeland, or stopping nuclear proliferation? And the refugees: Trump wants us to forget all those Syrians he has tried to keep from US shores, and his criticism of Germany for letting so many in.

Legal problems also arise with the US strike. Though members of Congress were apparently consulted, it neither authorized nor was asked to authorize the strike—a longstanding problem in presidential use of force abroad without Congressional assent. Nor did Trump take the matter before the UN Security Council, if for no other reason than to make the case before the international community and put the Russians in the position of having to defend a war criminal.

On the ground, the chief problem with the missile strike is that it does nothing to save Syrian lives. To the contrary, the strike is likely to lead to further loss of life as Assad reacts by attacking rebel positions with conventional weapons. Nor does the US action alter the fundamental reality that Assad’s dictatorship remains in charge and has no credible opposition.

Finally, we have to consider the “wag the dog” phenomenon, namely, that a president whose popularity is plummeting in the polls and whose team is under multiple investigations for ties to Russia sees an opportunity to reverse the tide and look like a strong leader. Nothing like showing the flag to boost one’s fortunes. That motive seems much more credible than the notion that Trump was truly moved by humanitarian concerns.

Beyond Syria

There is no easy answer to the conundrum of dealing with oppression abroad. Speaking up for human rights, freedom, and the rule of law is one thing; using force on behalf of high-minded principles is another. There are extraordinary circumstances that would justify use of force, such as a direct attack on the US homeland or on treaty allies, a UN-authorized multilateral mission in response to a major act of aggression, or a collective action under the UN “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) resolution in the case of a failed state in which crimes against humanity are being committed. None of those circumstances describes Syria, and the Trump administration does not claim otherwise. Even when military force is “justified,” however, it is to be hoped that wiser, transformative responses will be developed instead of bombs and guns.

Syria is a humanitarian crisis; over 400,000 people have been killed in the civil war, and millions of people have become refugees. The chemical attack, with its 80 deaths and many wounded, is just the latest event in a long-running disaster. The Trump administration, and the international community, ought to be asking: Is there an effective humanitarian response, meaning one that stops the killing? One option might be, as in the Bosnia war, to declare (and protect) safe zones for civilians. Another would be for the US and the European Union to recommit to welcoming Syrian refugees and working to ensure their safe passage. Striking an airport may satisfy some who seek to punish the Assad regime, but it does nothing for the millions of Syrians who have suffered and the tens of thousands more who will suffer.

We still await the leader who will speak credibly on behalf of the oppressed, the impoverished, the victims of aggression of one sort of another—and who will oppose the dictator, the torturer, the corrupt official. Donald Trump is not that leader.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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