What “Message” Was Sent By The Airstrikes in Syria?

Most of the media is still giving Trump high praise for launching airstrikes against Syria, for reasons that continue to elude me. Even critical pieces like this one by James Rubin at the New York Times still call it a “policy success.” Of the major pundits not explicitly associated with the left or the alt-right, only David Frum and Margaret Sullivan are crying foul. That’s more than a little disturbing, since the airstrikes accomplished nothing, and the Trump Administration’s motives are clearly suspect.

The most consistent theme of the praise–beyond the vapid, Cilizza-style optics pseudo-journalism of Trump “appearing presidential”–is that Trump was sending a message to Assad and to other foreign powers. There’s a form of aggressive military statesmanship between adversaries in which they test one another after a leadership change to see how the new leader will respond. To a certain extent this is true, and nothing is a greater reminder that we live in a Lord of Flies world where sociopathic boys with very expensive toys play with the lives of many for simple amusement and pecking order politics. By this measure, Assad’s decision to choke dozens of children with poison gas was done simply to check if he could. Trump’s response was supposed to be a signal that he couldn’t, which explains some of the media praise.

But does it send that signal? It’s not at all clear that it does, or that Assad is at all afraid. Trump lobbed 59 tomahawk missiles–enough to level a city’s downtown–at a single small airfield, and didn’t damage any chemical weapons, destroy any significant number of planes, or even prevent air operations from using the runway. No one of importance to the regime was killed. So what was the message, again? That if Assad gasses children again, the United States will spend another $100 million blowing up plywood shacks and concrete tarmacs? So what?

The central problems for the United States in Syria still remain: We can’t actually damage Assad capabilities without directly going to war with Russia. Conducting personal decapitation strikes against the regime is a flagrant violation of international law that would send Trump to the Hague. If you kill and disable Assad, there is still a horrific civil war with a lot of bad guys on both sides. On one side is a tyrant who murders hundreds of thousands and uses chemical weapons on kids. On the other is ISIS. Good luck to everyone.

Insofar as Trump is also using missile strikes as a message against North Korea, similar problems exist. Any small action is useless, and would rub China the wrong way. We can’t just kill the leader outright, both because it would be wildly illegal and because it’s uncertain what would come next. And escalating the situation could lead a desperate regime to kill millions in Japan and/or South Korea.

If throwing a bunch of tomahawk missiles at an empty airfield is supposed to send a message, I’m not sure what that message is. Even if it were clearly the morally right thing to do and didn’t come with concerns about sovereign integrity, imperialism, blowback and the the chaos of war, America isn’t able to project real force in Syria or North Korea in a way that doesn’t make the problem worse. Assad and Kim Jong-Un both know this, which makes them both smarter than 95% of the American pundit class.