The Tomahawk volley attack, for all its ostentatious symbolism, served larger strategic purposes. It reminded a world without morality that there is still a shred of a rule or two: Do not use nerve gas on the battlefield or against civilians. The past faux redline from Obama, the systematic use of chlorine gas by Syria, and its contextualization by the Obama administration had insidiously eroded that old battlefield prohibition. Trump was right to seek to revive it.
The subsequent MOAB bomb strike in Afghanistan is useful against ISIS’s subterranean nests, and in signaling the Taliban and ISIS that the U.S. too can be unpredictable and has not quite written off its 16-year commitment. But as in the case of the Tomahawk strikes against Syria, it also fulfilled the larger purpose of reminding enemies, such as Islamic terrorists, North Korea, and Iran (which all stash weapons of destruction in caves and the like) that the U.S. is capable of anything.
In other words, apparently anywhere Trump thinks that he can make a point about deterrence, with good odds of not getting Americans killed or starting a war (he used Tomahawks not pilots where Russian planes were in the vicinity), he will probably drop a bomb or shoot off a missile or send in an iconic carrier fleet.
The message reminds the world that the Obama administration’s “lead from behind,” “don’t do stupid sh**,” plastic red-button reset, Cairo Speech foreign policy followed no historical arc that bent anywhere. And the U.S. was previously on the wrong, not the right, side of both history and the traditions of U.S. bipartisan foreign policy — an aberration from the past, not a blueprint of the future.
Like Ronald Reagan, who, after Jimmy Carter’s managed declinism, shelled Lebanon, bombed Gaddafi, and invaded Grenada, Trump is trying to thread the needle between becoming bogged down somewhere and doing nothing.
No president in recent memory also has outsourced such responsibility to his military advisers, whom Trump refers to as “our” or “my” “generals.” He can afford to for now, because he has made excellent appointments at Defense, State, National Security, and Homeland Security. These are men who justifiably have won broad bipartisan support and who believe in the ancient ways of military and spiritual deterrence, balance of power, and alliances rather than the U.N., presidential sonorousness, or soft power to keep the peace.
These opportunistic deterrent expressions are likewise intended to remind several parties in particular that the Obama hiatus is over.
Apparently, Trump will not necessarily reset the Obama reset of the Bush reset with Russia. Instead, he probably believes that Putin will soon agree that the 2009–16 era was an abnormal condition in which a far weaker Russia bullied friends and connived against almost everything the U.S. was for. And such asymmetry could not be expected to go on. A return to normal relations is not brinkmanship; it should settle down to tense competition, some cooperation, and grudging respect among two powerful rivals. Who knows, Putin may come to respect (and even prefer) an American leader who is unpredictable and unapologetically tough without being sanctimonious, sermonizing — and weak.
The old canard is largely true: Russia has no natural interests in seeing a radical Islamic and nuclear Iran on its border, other than the fact that this change would irritate and aggravate the U.S., which might satisfy Putin. But if Russia no longer felt a need to automatically oppose everything America sought (or if it feared to do so), then many of its unsavory alliances might no longer may seem all that useful.
Trump is trying to act unpredictably and forcefully against Pyongyang, on the logic that without war, he can prompt greater containment before the unsustainable status quo leads to a conflagration.
Trump’s strikes and displays of naval power, and the reactions to them, also remind North Korea that it has no friends and could prove a liability to China (as Syria could to Russia) rather than a useful rabid animal to be occasionally unleashed so that it might bark and nip at Westernized Asia and the U.S. If North Korea’s antics imperil China’s commercial buccaneering or lead to a nuclear Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan on China’s borders, or to U.S. commercial restrictionism, then China could see North Korea’s insanity as not worth the cost. Additionally, if tensions rise, North Korea’s own military elite could remove the unhinged Kim Jong-un after concluding that he’s expendable. Or regional powers, despite differences, might collectively conclude that they can’t live with daily threats of nuclear launchings.
Again, Trump is trying to act unpredictably and forcefully against Pyongyang, the world’s most detested government — on the logic that without war, he can prompt greater containment before the unsustainable status quo leads to a conflagration. This is a sort of post–Cold War brinkmanship.
By now, Iran knows that it cannot send another missile toward an American carrier, hijack an American boat, or cheat flagrantly on the Iran Deal without earning some response from a man who dislikes both the revolutionary government and what Iran has done to the U.S. over the past eight years.
The general aims of these iconic acts are to remind the world of U.S. strength and that the new president has the willingness to use it to prevent some weaker entity from doing something stupid.
The general aims of these iconic acts are to remind the world of U.S. strength and that the new president has the willingness to use it to prevent some weaker entity from doing something stupid on the misapprehension that the U.S. is in decline rather than reemerging from a temporarily and self-imposed recessional. Once deterrence is reestablished (and only once it is achieved), then the U.S. will be able to appeal to Russia and China to find areas of mutual concern (radical Islam, nuclear proliferation in Asia, rogue nations that threaten the international order, etc.).
Are there risks in seeking to reestablish U.S. deterrence?
1) Even dropping a huge bomb or sending in a flock of missiles or deploying the fleet near hostile shores at some point can lose its luster and lead to escalation to ensure that enemies remain impressed. In a cycle of escalation, then, America could leapfrog into an unintended war. It is vital to play out each demonstration of strength to the subsequent third and fourth degree, to guarantee that shows of deterrent force do not lead to unintended involvement or become habitual and thus banal.
2) Trump ran as a Jacksonian — not as a neoconservative or an isolationist. His electoral base must see his use of force as a) long overdue, b) at some point soon, no longer required, c) not leading to but rather preventing a major intervention, and d) undertaken for American not global interests. Otherwise, Trump will stumble into what he ran against.
3) When Trump righteously hits back at nerve-gassing dictators or head-chopping radical Islamists, his polls climb, his press improves, and more Americans think him a sober and judicious centrist — a fine and useful thing. But such political concerns can take on a logic of their own, in that the more Trump is praised by the Council of Foreign Relations or the Brookings Institution, the more likely he might be to fall into a pattern prescribed by an entrenched establishment. For a populist, doing necessary things that political opponents like is a paradox whose political consequences are still not quite fully appreciated.
4) Soon the low-hanging fruit of sending carriers around the globe and bombing Assad or ISIS will be picked, and Trump may find himself in an “incident” with a nuclear-armed Russia or China. Both adversaries have their own deterrent considerations and will bristle that they really do have to back down from what has been (since 2009) a rare period of opportunism at U.S. expense. The best solution, obviously, is to persuade Russia and China to curb their clients so that they will receive credit for their belated maturity.
Losing deterrence and seeking to recapture it are among the most dangerous moments for a great power, and we will be reminded of just that peril over the next year. There’s only one thing more dangerous in the short term than allowing North Korea to advance to launching intercontinental nuclear missiles, or letting China build an artificial island base in international waters of the South China Sea, or permitting the Iranians to haze U.S. ships in the Gulf of Hormuz, or backing down from Assad as he gasses civilians: trying to put an end to such things, and reminding the world that what was once normal was always in the long term a sure way to war.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.