This month’s retaliatory airstrikes may have been an effective symbolic assertion of American power, but they set a dangerous precedent.
President Trump raised eyebrows recently when he ended a tweet laudingthe airstrikes he’d ordered against chemical-weapons facilities in Syria with the words “mission accomplished.” The phrase, of course, became infamous in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when President Bush used it in a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. Bush’s speech was meant to celebrate the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but it ignored the nascent insurgency that would later envelop the country, and history has judged him harshly as a result.
Whether President Trump’s declaration will turn out to be true might depend on how he sees the mission.
Trump’s airstrikes will do little to protect Syrian civilians from further atrocities at the hands of the Assad regime; the airstrikes will neither degrade Assad’s ability to conduct them or deter further use of chemical weapons. Rather, they were a symbolic assertion of American military power, something President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated he sees as its own end. In that narrow sense, Trump’s strikes may have accomplished his mission, but their lack of results will make further, riskier symbolic assertions of American might more likely going forward.
Any military operation against the Assad regime had little chance of helping Syrian civilians. A limited operation would not change the facts on the ground, while a larger one risked creating a much deadlier conflict. Reports suggest that Trump favored a larger strike than the one the U.S. military and its French and British allies ultimately conducted. The new national-security adviser, John Bolton, agreed with the president, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis disagreed — citing concerns about escalation with Russia. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bolton, in his first week on the job,chose to defer to the politically popular Mattis.
Trump’s strikes may have accomplished his mission, but their lack of results will make further, riskier symbolic assertions of American might more likely going forward.
One can sympathize with the White House’s predicament. A larger intervention might have done real damage to the Assad regime, but would have risked conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia, which sees maintaining the Assad regime’s grip on power as vital to its own national interests. And even if that risk could be managed, it would have meant committing the United States to a long-term military presence in Syria — something the president himself had just declared his opposition to. So the president ordered a smaller strike that did little to punish the Syrian government for its atrocities, while maintaining his desire to withdraw American troops from the country in the near future.
Observers have struggled to explain Trump’s contradictory impulses to withdraw but also to seek a massive strike. Was he trying to distract from the Mueller investigation, the raid on his personal attorney’s office and home, and the impending release of James Comey’s book? If so, the abuse he heaped on the former FBI director on Twitterwouldn’t make much sense. Did he want to prove that he’s not a Russian stooge by attacking the Kremlin-backed Assad regime despite Moscow’s warnings? His subsequent decision to nix sanctions punishing Russia for its support of the Assad regime suggests not. Is there something about images of children killed in chemical attacks that tugs at his heartstrings, even if he is otherwise opposed to a long-term military presence in the country? Maybe, but he has failed to respond to multiple other chemical attacks the Assad regime has conducted since he decided to launch 59 cruise missiles at regime targets just over a year before this month’s salvo.
It has long been clear that the president sees the military as a symbol of national power, as opposed to an instrument of it. By extension, it is a symbol of his own power. It is why he takes every opportunity to boast about the defense-spending increases Congress recently approved. It’s why he wants a military parade. It’s why he invokes the military when announcing controversial policy decisions. And it’s why he regularly discusses the military in personal terms, referring frequently to “my military” and “my generals.”
April 14’s strike fit with this symbolic understanding of military power. The kinds of messy nation-building and counterinsurgency operations that Trump abhors fail to fulfill this purpose. Even if hitting select Syrian targets didn’t achieve any important concrete end, it accomplished its symbolic mission by serving as a visible assertion of American power. Moreover, it allowed Trump to back up his previously tweeted threat that “nice and new and ‘smart!’” missiles were on the way, despite Russia’s warnings that there would be dire consequences for a strike on Assad. According to the New York Times, the president even rejected Mattis’s suggestion that he seek congressional approval for the intervention because too much time had already passed since he’d made the threat.
Using military force in this way turns Clausewitz on his head. The Prussian military theorist famously argued that war was “the continuation of politics by other means.” War has its own grammar — the use of military of force — but its logic is political.
A number of factors have enabled the president’s astrategic understanding of the use of military force. While he is a novice in military affairs, America’s generals have no such excuse. Yet before the chemical attack in Douma, several stories suggested that the military saw maintaining its presence Syria in perpetuity as an end to itself. If so, they reflect a national-security establishment that favors “doing something” even when there is little indication that the “something” in question will be effective.
The public makes this environment even more permissive for symbolic assertions of American military power. Voters rarely consider foreign policy at the ballot box, so unless a military failure is catastrophic, it poses little harm to the president’s political future. Moreover, absent such a catastrophe, and given the high levels of partisan polarization plaguing American politics, the president’s supporters can interpret ambiguous — or in this case, nonexistent — results positively. If the tears of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones are any indication, some anti-interventionist members of Trump’s base will not be easily placated. Most, however, will follow the president’s cues and assurances that airstrikes are not the same as inserting ground troops in pursuit of regime change.
The reliance on cruise missiles and airpower made the Syria strike relatively cost-free and also fit with the abiding American faith in technological solutions to complex political problems. Americans have long thought airstrikes were a magic elixir that alleviated the dilemmas inherent in using military force when the stakes are low. Though, as Eliot Cohen observed several years after Operation Desert Storm, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.”
To be fair to President Trump, his predecessors — operating in the same permissive environment and facing the same pressures to do something — have also ordered military strikes with little thought to whether or how they would produce favorable political outcomes. But Trump is a man who has consistently demonstrated an abiding interest in immediate gratification without commitment. So while he accomplished his mission this time by wielding American military power, a repeat performance is almost certain even if a policy end remains absent.
The Assad regime retains the ability to commit atrocities again, and it almost certainly will do so. Given the foreign-policy elite’s bias in favor of doing something even when it would accomplish nothing and the weak domestic political constraints on presidential warmaking, President Trump will likely want another symbolic assertion of American military power in the future. The question at that point will be whether Secretary Mattis will again prevail in the interagency fight over the character of the intervention. A larger intervention might improve the chances of defanging the Assad regime, but at the cost of risking the escalation that this latest strike avoided.