The Two Bad Explanations for Trump’s Airstrikes in Syria

Self-proclaimed anti-interventionist, America-first isolationist Donald Trump has betrayed his outraged supporters and his ideology by launching airstrikes into Syria. In typical Trump fashion, the action was carried out at great expense and with much fanfare, but with little forethought and even less efficacy. The strikes, levied against a single Syrian airfield, appear to have been largely ineffective, as Syrian planes were flying missions out of that same airfield shortly thereafter. Syrian president Assad’s capacity to carry out air attacks again seems to be unhindered even from that same location, airfields are easy to repair quickly, and our airstrikes avoided touching Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons lest they be aerosolized.

Which raises the obvious question: why did Trump conduct the strikes at all? No one but those closest to the president know for sure, but there seem to be two possible explanations–neither of which reflect well on the Commander-in-Chief.

First, let’s consider the White House’s version at face value. After running as a candidate opposed to even Barack Obama’s limited intervention in Syria, Donald Trump as president positioned the United States more closely to Assad–and to Assad primary ally in the region, Russia. But after the recent chemical weapons attack that left dozens dead including many children (apparently carried out by the Assad regime, despite skepticism in some corners as to the perpetrator), supposedly the President went with his heart in standing up to the tyrant and doing something more about it than just drawing a line in the sand.

The primary problem with this narrative for Trump is that by conducting such an ineffectual strike, Trump may actually have made Assad stronger by reinforcing his strategic invulnerability to anything but a full-scale invasion. After the initial shock and awe wears off, it will be clear that Trump jumped deep enough into the pool of war to get wet, but not enough to get clean. He will have made the United States a unilateral actor in violation of international law and protocol, but without even achieving a tangible result.

Moreover, this narrative further paints the portrait of a president who conducts erratic policy via cable news. If Trump were offended and concerned on behalf of defenseless Syrian children, he would first of all have opened the door to more Syrian refugee families. But secondly, he would have known about the immense humanitarian catastrophe the Assad regime had already created in exacerbating a civil war resulting in the deaths of nearly half a million people. He would have known about the first chemical attack Assad had launched, also resulting in the deaths of many children. Nothing about Assad’s brutal and murderous tactics had changed, so it doesn’t make sense for Trump to have had such a significant reversal of policy–unless he saw the heartwrenching images on cable news and made a rash, ill-considered decision based on raw emotion. That’s not how the Commander-in-Chief should behave. Just imagine, for a moment, the misogynistic reactions from Republicans if a female Democratic president were to make decisions of war and peace based on emotional reactions to images on cable news. All of the ugly talking points you just conjured in your head can and should be leveled at Trump, if indeed this was his decision function.

The other possibility is that the Trump Administration acted cynically in launching the airstrikes in order to distract from domestic troubles.

Consider that the Trump Administration warned Russia about the impending strike. That’s a good thing insofar as it averts a hot war with Russia, but it also means that Putin warned Assad, who in turn moved any and all valuable equipment out of harm’s way. Consider also that not only did American strikes not appear to damage Assad’s planes or stockpiles of deadly gas, they didn’t even manage to damage the runways enough to prevent Syrian planes from taking off. Either airstrikes are far, far less effective than we’re being led to believe, or they weren’t intended to do much damage in the first place. It’s also incredibly unlikely that a President who seems bizarrely unable or unwilling to say anything negative about Russia or Putin, and who has aligned American foreign policy in an alarming way in line with Russian interests, would suddenly turn 180 degrees and damage that relationship over an intractable Syrian civil war. It’s worth noting that Russian anti-air defense systems didn’t even bother to try to intercept the airstrikes, though they are capable of doing so–nor have the Russian objections to Trump’s actions gone beyond the usual diplomatic fluff.

It’s almost as though the whole thing were a dog-and-pony show designed to make it look like the Administration was getting tough with both Assad and Putin, but to actually achieve nothing at all except fawning praise from hawkish Republicans and the press. In that case, mission accomplished.

So which is it? Is the president a hothead who makes rash and foolish decisions based on cable news footage, or a cynical opportunist wagging the dog and using the weapons of war to achieve domestic political purposes? Both alternatives are disturbing.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.