During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump often refused to say what action he would take in response to various world hot spots because, he argued, it is foolish to tell our adversaries what we’ll do before we do it. I viewed this response at least in part as an evasion — an excuse for not discussing policy. But the response made some sense and Trump may not have been entirely insincere in giving it.
In response to Syria’s latest chemical attack, however, President Trump is doing just what he used to say a president shouldn’t do. Several times a day, Trump is telling the world, including Russia and Syria, that he’s going to attack Syria.
Trump’s critics are seizing on this inconsistency, as well they might. However, I think there’s less to it than meets the eye.
Why? Because it probably goes without saying that Trump will retaliate against Syria militarily. He committed the U.S. to this approach last April when he struck Syrian air bases following a chemical attack on civilians by the Assad regime. He was clear that future use of chemical weapons by the regime would trigger another U.S. military response.
Thus, Syria and Russia have every reason to expect a retaliatory attack, and no doubt began preparing their defense straight away. Trump, then, isn’t really tipping his hand on Syria. He tipped it last year, and had to in order to maximize the chance of deterring future chemical attacks.
Still, it’s fair to ask what the point is of repeatedly threatening to attack Syria. By doing so, the president puts himself in a position where, if our forces encounter fierce resistance, his critics can claim (however speciously) that it’s Trump’s fault for tipping his hand, in violation of his own “rule” against doing so.
Maybe Trump hopes not to attack. Maybe he hopes to scare Russia and Syria into some sort of negotiation.
This, I think, would be a major mistake — essentially the same one then-President Obama made when Syria crossed his red line. After planning an attack and seeking congressional approval, Obama backed down and agreed to a scheme whereby Russia supposedly would ensure the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. We know how that turned out.
Trump justly portrays Obama’s failure to uphold his “red line” as the root of much of the evil in Syria today (although at the time, Trump said we shouldn’t retaliate against Syria — we should “stay the hell out,” he opined). It would be ironic, and probably tragic, if Trump repeated Obama’s mistake.
He might do, though. I’m sure Trump considers himself a better negotiator than Obama, and I’m confident he is. But we’ve been such a peripheral player in Syria that we need to demonstrate our ability to inflict real pain on the regime before we’ll obtain anything approaching the amount of leverage necessary for a successful negotiation, even assuming one is possible.
I think Trump understands this and will act on his threat.