When Donald Trump’s supporters elected him president, they did not expect a pacifist; but they did expect a president who would make America great again, in part, by restoring constitutional government…
President Trump is wrong, both politically and militarily, in how he approached the recent allegations of a chemical attack in Syria. His decision to fire tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base was the low point of his administration thus far. It is now incumbent upon the President and his administration to recognize their error and prevent a bad decision from metastasizing into a bad strategy.
Militarily, if the goal of the missile strike was to “send a message” to President Assad, President Trump and his advisors fail to understand the nature of war. President Assad has been fighting in one of the most horrific wars in modern times. Many Syrians have been killed, his entire country has been destroyed, and his life is in constant danger. At this stage of President Assad’s tenure, a missile strike will not scare him. President Trump and his advisors are naive if they think that a few Tomahawk missiles will act as a psychological deterrent to President Assad, or anyone else for that matter.
Quite the opposite: the American missile attack on Syria will only confirm President Assad in the wisdom of his decision to ally his nation-state with Russia and to invite the Russian military into Syria to protect the legal government. President Trump and his advisors would do well to recognize that the Russian presence in Syria is the logical consequence of the American invasion of Iraq, which sent nation-states that felt threatened by potential American aggression into a frenzy of activity to either acquire a nuclear deterrent or to ally themselves with stronger states that would provide a security shield for them. Having destroyed the legal government in Iraq and unleashed radical Islamic terrorism in the region, the United States forced Arab states that still maintained legal, secular governments to defend themselves against two enemies: the Islamic State and the United States itself. Russia was the only viable ally for President Assad against the Islamic State. Syria and Russia were the only viable allies for the United States against the Islamic State. A policy of allying with all legal Arab and non-Arab governments against terrorism should have become the hallmark of the Trump Doctrine in the Middle East. Present circumstances do not allow the luxury of demanding a more democratic Syria. The choice is between imperfect order and perfect chaos.
Politically, the missile strikes will have very grave consequences for President Trump’s standing with the American electorate. The President’s poll numbers have been extremely low ever since his inauguration; his support has been essentially limited to his political base. President Trump’s political base is asymmetrical. It is composed of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, and progressives, all united by one fundamental proposition: that an unconventional president was required who understood the immense importance of withdrawing the United States from the spiral of perpetual wars lacking clear objectives having to do with national defense, national interest, or morality. The strikes against Syria have severely damaged President Trump’s credibility with his political base, and with each word of praise from the very political elites that the Trump coalition came together to defeat, this damage will magnify.
There was no need for the strikes. President Trump’s poll numbers will rise and his support will expand outside his base if, instead of attacking Syria, he would continue to work to bring jobs back to the United States and pursue commercial relations with all, war with none. With improving economic data, with more jobs, and with stabilizing, growing markets, President Trump would—within the course of twelve months—experience a steady rise in public support as Americans regain a sense of job security and economic stability. Only short-sighted public relations advisors could think otherwise.
If anything, President Trump’s political advisors were focused on the wrong polls. The mainstream establishment media and the President’s Republican and Democratic adversaries were never going to support him, but ever since, first, General Michael Flynn and, then, Steve Bannon were removed from the National Security Council, there has been growing consternation and confusion on the part of President Trump’s most loyal supporters—the people who got the vote out and gave him the advantage in the Electoral College.
Appointing and then swiftly demoting General Flynn was President Trump’s first major error. Appointments to the National Security Council should not be made lightly. General Flynn took a big risk chanting “lock her up” in regard to Secretary Hillary Clinton. It is demoralizing that now General Flynn is the one who could be locked up because he trusted President Trump. Likewise, demoting Mr. Bannon after elevating him to the National Security Council was a mistake. There is no way to avoid tying both of these events to the worst decision President Trump has yet made: the attack on Syria.
Finally, even if President Trump had decided, for whatever reason, that a military strike against Syria was necessary—that it was in the United States’ national interest and morally justified—he could have taken his case to Congress and restored good constitutional practice by asking for a declaration of war against Syria. Whether or not they supported war against Syria, most Americans would have at least cheered President Trump for doing this. If the Congress then had declared war on Syria, President Trump would not have violated the trust of his political base. We did not elect nor did we expect a pacifist; but we did expect a president who would make America great again, in part, by restoring constitutional government.
Instead, President Trump made the wrong decision in the wrong way. Not only did he authorize a useless and futile military strike against Syria that will have no effect on the war, he is also alienating Russia and his own political base. All of this need not doom his presidency, but it could be the beginning of the end if it becomes a strategy of incremental steps towards another senseless war. Judging by statements made by the American ambassador to the United Nations, this short-term mistake is about to become long-term American strategy. If it does, President Trump will lose even more popular support and America’s global reputation as a dangerous menace to world peace will only be solidified.
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