President Donald Trump’s decision to authorize a cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase late Thursday may prove pivotal in his administration’s slow and rocky transition.
While the strike was clearly reactive — in some ways an abrupt shift from the non-interventionist rhetoric that characterized his Syria policy of just a few days ago — it nevertheless has the potential to reset the strategic table in the region. If the administration follows up and embeds these strikes in a systematic strategy for the region, then historians may look back on this as the week the Trump administration finally started to find its foreign policy footing.
The administration will need to answer at least three questions as it builds out its larger strategy:
1. What will Trump do with his renewed credibility and coercive leverage over Assad? Beyond whatever immediate damage the airstrikes inflicted on Syria, the most important short-term consequence of the attack is that it finally restored some U.S. credibility and coercive leverage. Ever since the Syrian civil war began, United States has suffered from an acute credibility deficit. President Barack Obama made many threats and issued many warnings to Syria, but his failure to impose real military penalties on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rendered those threats null and void. Obama’s botched “red line” crisis of 2013 made the credibility gap acute — demonstrating for the entire world just how far Obama was willing to go to avoid military action inside Syria. Trump’s early rhetoric on Syria aligned with Obama’s actions, and set the expectation for more of the same. Now Trump has done something Obama never did, and with that has forced Assad to readjust.
But to what end? For what purpose will Trump use the somewhat enhanced leverage he has today that he did not have earlier in the week? The minimum demand would be no more use of chemical weapons by Assad — a demand presumably backed up by the willingness to strike Assad’s military again if he defies Trump. The maximum demand would involve some form of accommodation that relaunches peace talks with the rebels. Trump probably has enough new leverage to expect the former, but not yet the latter. But he may be tempted to go for the latter. If so, he will quickly find that his options depend on what others do, which brings us to —
2. How will Trump manage the Russia-China fallout from the strike? His response, of course, will depend on house much fallout there is. One of the most deleterious consequences of Obama’s failed Syria policy was that it created a power vacuum that brought the Russian military into the region. At the grand strategic level, this was a profound setback to a decades-long bipartisan foreign policy goal of ensuring that the Soviet Union (and later Russia) not be the great-power holder of the balance in the Middle East. At the operational level, Russia’s military involvement in Syria greatly complicated any possible U.S. military option — raising the risk that even minor tactical moves by the United States might result in a direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed great power. These constraints had the effect of checkmating the United States into strategic paralysis, at least under the Obama administration.
Trump has showed that he has a higher appetite for risk, striking a Syrian airbase even though there were Russian forces stationed there, albeit after first alerting Russia to the attack. Trump thus made a reasonable tradeoff, mitigating the risks of escalation at the cost of accepting some lower degree of operational effectiveness of the strikes themselves. How much mitigation of risk depends on what Russia does next. Russia’s immediate reaction was to express outrage and to suspend the cooperative arrangements the two sides had worked out to deconflict military operations in the region — not retaliating, but making any future U.S. military action that much riskier. But Russia has many other cards to play, and Trump’s options depend on how Russian President Vladimir Putin plays them.
Trump’s Russia policy was already a work in progress, whipsawed by the daily melodrama of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Now we all, Putin included, will learn a bit more of how Trump actually views U.S.-Russian relations. During the campaign, Trump seemed to indicate that he thought Russia could be a meaningful partner in counterterrorism in the region. Many specialists, myself included, were skeptical that Russia could be counted on to be helpful. But no one doubted that Russia could play a spoiler role. One of Trump’s most urgent priorities now is to dissuade Putin from going too far down that path.
At the same time, Trump will have to manage the Asian aftershocks of the attack. The timing of the strike — in the middle of Trump’s dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-o-Lago resort in Florida — puts U.S.-China relations in play more directly than they otherwise might have been. China historically does not support these kinds of unilateral uses of force and will likely view the decision to strike during the summit as a direct diplomatic challenge. And that may well have been part of Trump’s calculation — that it will knock China on its hind feet a bit and perhaps off of whatever script it came into the summit prepared to follow. Trump famously prizes surprise as a negotiating tactic and he probably achieved it in the short run, since it is doubtful China’s summit playbook had a “what to do if the United States attacks Syria during dinner” preplanned script. But China’s reaction will matter because China can play a spoiler role in the United Nations, which matters because —
3. How will Trump work with U.S. allies and partners and the U.N. to manage the next phase of the conflict? Trump did not need the allies to launch a one-off salvo of cruise missiles. But he will need allies and partners to translate that strike into more lasting political and strategic benefits. Those allies, in turn, will want more international legal top cover than U.S. unilateral action alone provides. Trump’s lawyers may be right that he had sufficient constitutional and international legal cover for the initial salvo, but America’s European allies will surely want a wider legal authorization in the form of U.N. authorization. Achieving that now will be very difficult because of the Russian and Chinese vetoes (see question two).
This is the familiar problem of U.S. leadership that every president in the post-Cold War era has had to solve. International problems do not get resolved without U.S. leadership. But U.S. action, by itself and without additional international partnership, does not produce lasting results. U.S. leadership is a necessary condition for mobilizing America’s partners, but it is not sufficient. They usually demand additional steps that provide legitimacy for U.S. action. In particular, they demand authorization from multilateral organizations — at minimum an alliance organization like NATO, but preferably the U.N. Thus, every U.S. president has found it desirable to work through the U.N., NATO, and other regional, multilateral organizations in order to mobilize friends and partners to augment U.S. action.
So far, Trump has not seemed to think of U.S. allies and those multilateral organizations in that way. He has viewed them through a much narrower, transactional lens that has discounted, if not ignored entirely, their broader function. I expect the next days and weeks will be something of a tutorial for the Trump team on what works and does not work in alliance management.
Candidate Trump repeatedly promised that he would not simply conduct American foreign policy in the way Obama did. By punishing Assad for his brazen violation of international law and basic human decency, Trump took a significant step forward in fulfilling that campaign promise. But Trump also promised that his approach would produce more lasting success than Obama’s. Whether he fulfills that promise will depend on what comes next, not on what happened Thursday.
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