Syria is weird for reasons that transcend even the bizarre situation of bombing an abhorrent Bashar al-Assad who was bombing an abhorrent ISIS — as we de facto ally with Iran, the greater strategic threat, to defeat the more odious, but less long-term strategic threat, ISIS.
Trump apparently hit a Syrian airfield to express Western outrage over the likely Syrian use of chemical weapons. Just as likely, he also sought to remind China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea that he is unpredictable and not restrained by self-imposed cultural, political, and ethical bridles that seemed to ensure that Obama would never do much over Chinese and Russian cyber-warfare, or Iranian interception of a U.S. warship or the ISIS terror campaign in the West or North Korea’s increasingly creepy and dangerous behavior.
But the strike also raised as many questions as it may have answered.
Is Trump saying that he can send off a few missiles anywhere and anytime rogues go too far? If so, does that willingness to use force enhance deterrence? (probably); does it also risk further escalation to be effective? (perhaps); and does it solve the problem of an Assad or someone similar committing more atrocities? (no).
Was the reason we hit Assad, then, because he is an especially odious dictator and kills his own, or that the manner in which he did so was cruel and barbaric (after all, ISIS burns, drowns, and cuts apart its victims without much Western reprisals until recently)? Or is the reason instead that he used WMD, and since 1918 with a few exceptions (largely in the Middle East), “poison” gas has been a taboo weapon among the international community? (Had Assad publicly beheaded the same number who were gassed, would we have intervened?)
Do we continue to sort of allow ISIS to fight it out with Syria/Iran/Hezbollah in the manner of our shrug during the Iran-Iraq War and in the fashion until Pearl Harbor that we were okay with the Wehrmacht and the Red Army killing each other en masse for over five months in Russia? Or do we say to do so cynically dooms innocents in a fashion that they are not quite as doomed elsewhere, or at least not doomed without chance of help as is true in North Korea?
Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Syria, deriding the Iraq War, and questioning the Afghan effort. Does his sudden strike signal a Jacksonian effort to hit back enemies if the mood comes upon us — and therefore acceptable to his base as a sort of one-off, don’t-tread-on-me hiss and rattle?
Or does the strike that was so welcomed by the foreign-policy establishment worry his supporters that Trump is now putting his suddenly neocon nose in someone’s else’s business? And doing so without congressional authorizations or much exegesis?