U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a surgical strike against the Syrian military Thursday evening in retaliation for recent chemical weapon attacks against civilians. Trump gave the order to launch more than 50 cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airfield in Homs province in western Syria, from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he is currently entertaining visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Reaction to the attack has been confused. Republican politicians, who earlier this week claimed America had no reason to fight Syria, instantly expressed their approval of the decision on social media. Also on social media were Trump supporters who had once accused his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton of being a “warmonger”; unlike the congressmen, some are sticking to their personal convictions and openly criticizing the President for the attack. Meanwhile, longstanding critics of the President are also navigating their own cognitive dissonance as they try to reconcile their desperate desire to end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody reign with a deep conviction that Donald Trump is wrong about everything, everywhere, every time.
What is more broadly shared, though, is a fear that the attack could escalate. The Syrian government is backed by Russia, and not only are there Russian military forces on the ground, there are reports some are based at the Shayrat airbase itself. While Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are two of the most powerful leaders in the world, ironically both are feeling desperately vulnerable at home (Putin faces a collapsing economy, Trump a congressional investigation into…Russia). Some violent jingoism, maybe even a tense military standoff, would be politically useful to both of them.
But the early signs are promising that this might be avoided. The Trump White House wisely agreed to telegraph their attack to the Russians well in advance. This presumably gave the Kremlin enough time to evacuate any of their military personnel from the target area. It also gave them time to warn some of their local allies—Lebanese journalists reported several families of Syrian generals crossed the border in the hours just before the strike.
It is also likely that the military operation was not rashly planned overnight. The Pentagon has been considering various Syrian scenarios for years now, and it is probable that this target, and even the number of Tomahawk cruise missiles fired, was decided upon years ago when President Barack Obama was still talking about “red lines”. This is to say that we can find a measure of reassurance in thinking this option had been thought through, debated, revised, and refined many times before it was brought to Trump in Florida for his approval.
Nonetheless, if we can say Trump has any real geopolitical strategy at all, then we have to acknowledge his frequent approval of the “Madman theory”. This was an idea that emerged during Henry Kissinger’s days in the Nixon White House, that America’s adversaries would tread carefully if they were never really sure how crazy the President might actually be. It’s hard not to see Trump’s decision to attack Syria, and by implication its ally Russia, in that light. Trump predicted he would be unpredictable. Once again, we should have listened to him.
And, as a fervent critic of the President myself, I am left grappling with my own confusion about these unexpected events. The war in Syria has dragged on now for just over six years. It has cost the lives of half a million, and displaced another 11 million more. The refugee crisis has not only destabilized the region, it has shaken Europe and weakened NATO. The failure of the world to stop the suffering in Syria, suffering that is recorded and beamed into our pockets every day, is the great crime of this age.
It is entirely possible Trump ordered this attack simply to look tough and virile, to ape Putin’s bare chested posing. And there is a strong chance those missiles were launched just to distract us from the ongoing Russia scandal that threatens to end this presidency. It’s even possible, when you consider the almost daily displays of White House mismanagement and confusion, that this missile strike was a mistake. But, nonetheless, it is very likely it will turn out this was the right thing to do, and something that should have been done several years ago.