Horrified like the rest of us by the children slaughtered in a suspected nerve gas attack in Syria, President Donald Trump drew his line in the sand. He retaliated with 59 Tomahawk missiles that destroyed a Syrian government air base 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,” the president said last week.
He’s right about that. The best outcome is that this limited strike will stop Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again and maybe even discourage him from killing civilians with barrel bombs.
To the president’s credit, the U.S. response was appropriate and narrowly targeted. And it got the attention of both Assad and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who long has propped up the Assad regime and turned a blind eye to Assad’s war crimes.
But now that Trump has vented our outrage and backed up his tough talk, what comes next?
What is the White House strategy to end a six-year civil war that has killed 400,000 and created a humanitarian and refugee crisis?
Trump has expanded the U.S. role in Syria’s civil war by directly targeting Assad’s regime for the first time, but now U.S. pilots and about 1,000 soldiers on the ground in Syria are at more risk.
Syria condemned the strike as an act of “aggression” and a violation of international law. So did its patron, Russia, whose prime minister said the missiles came “within an inch” of a clash with its military.
The American public has no appetite for another bloody ground war in the Middle East, so Trump should start with diplomacy and more humanitarian aid. The president could also exhibit compassion, take Syria off the list of countries in his travel and refugee ban, and welcome women and children.
While congressional leaders supported the strike, Trump must get Congress’ authorization if there is to be further military action against Assad. The authorization approved after the 9/11 attacks does not cover operations in Syria.
Syria is but one of several major foreign policy failures for President Barack Obama, who drew his red line against chemical weapons in Syria in 2012. After Assad launched a chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 in 2013, Obama postponed a strike to seek congressional authorization and instead agreed to a deal with Russia for Syria to destroy or remove its chemical weapons.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that Russia has failed to live up to the agreement. “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent,” he told reporters.
This strike is a dramatic turnabout for Trump, who had been preaching “America First” and warning against getting involved in places like Syria. His focus in Syria had been solely on defeating elements of the Islamic State, even if that meant embracing Assad or risking civilian casualties.
Now his policy seems to have flipped entirely, even if it means upsetting Russia, which interfered in the presidential election to help Trump and which he had avoided criticizing.
This strike will likely give Trump a short-term boost in popularity, but he has embarked on a perilous course. This is war and peace. It’s the Middle East. Russia and Iran are involved, and it’s complicated.
We hope that the gravity of conditions in the Middle East will transform Trump into a president who focuses more on policy and consequences, and less on Twitter. As historians have noted, presidents typically grow into the office and many raise their game significantly after being thrust into their first crisis.
In coming days and weeks, Trump and his advisers must come up with a real Syria strategy and convince Congress and the American people it is in our national interest.