President Trump’s war statement tonight against Syria — and yes, a military strike of limited scope and duration, while arguably not required to be approved by Congress, is still war — reads on the page as a fairly conventional American presidential address announcing military strikes, complete with the participation of two allies (Britain and France). Not entirely: Trump still inserted his own regretful notes about Putin’s failure to accept the proffered hand of friendship that we (i.e., Trump) can offer him. The mixed emotions and bureaucratic turf wars in the statement were not hard to read. Trump’s delivery of the statement was a little choppy (he was visibly uncomfortable talking about the First World War, a subject with which he is doubtlessly unfamiliar), but not terribly unusual.
I do not place any great faith in Trump’s motives for this action, given that it serves a handy purpose (like Bill Clinton’s strikes on Afghanistan and Iraq, on the days of his grand jury testimony and impeachment, respectively) in distracting from Trump’s own legal and political jeopardy. But doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is still the right thing.
Is it actually the right thing? Time will tell, and our policy in Syria has faced a shortage of good options for years due to President Obama’s preference for courting Iran over backing the non-ISIS opposition to Assad. Certainly the Assad regime deserves a military response for its use of chemical weapons and its general, decades-long pattern of atrocities, aggression, and assassination. And it is encouraging for Trump to face the basic problem that both his and Obama’s policies have tended to ignore: that the ongoing axis of Russia, Iran and Syria defies any diplomatic initiatives aimed at peeling off one of the three.
But at the end of the day, this amounts to the military equivalent of whacking your dog’s snout with a rolled-up newspaper. It will not eliminate Syria’s access to weapons of mass destruction, just as the Obama Administration’s much-touted deals to remove Syria’s chemical weapons did no such thing, and the Obama Administration’s Iran Deal did not constrict Iran’s ability to swiftly reconstruct a nuclear program at a time of its own choosing. The problem is not weapons, but regimes.
That said, it has probably been five years since we had any realistic prospect of replacing the Syrian regime with something that isn’t at least as bad, and doing so would cost us a lot of American blood and treasure. So the newspaper-on-dog approach may be the best option on the table at present.
But at a minimum, tonight’s announcement illustrates that the enduring imperatives of American foreign policy prevail over the ideological illusions and personal impulses of Obama and Trump.