Syria is a complex quagmire, perhaps a greater foreign policy challenge than any previously faced by the United States. In this Middle Eastern nation, the players range from bad to worse, and it can be hard to tell which is which. The ruling regime, which has been fighting a civil war since 2011, is an authoritarian government led by dictator Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad has been almost universally condemned for his use of chemical weapons against his own people, including innocent civilians.
Assad’s opponents may not be much better. They consist of various rebel groups of dubious intent and competence. His primary foe is ISIS, which has also been almost universally condemned for a litany of crimes against humanity. Virtually the only thing ISIS has not done is use weapons of mass destruction, like chemical weapons, on a significant scale. Whether it comes to living under the jackboot of Assad or the rusty blade of ISIS, the people of Syria face no good option.
In 2013, then-President Barack Obama faced this quagmire and, by most contemporary accounts, failed. After insisting that the use of chemical weapons by Assad was a “redline” that would provoke a [“boots on the ground” military] response, Obama did not alter his course of limited airstrikes after evidence confirmed that the dictator was using sarin gas. Conservatives, especially defense hawks, loudly criticized the president for ignoring atrocity and making the U.S. appear weak before the world.
Obviously, Obama was hesitant to send U.S. ground forces back to the Middle East en masse after years of conflict in both Iraq and Afghanistan. An added complication was the presence of Russian forces in Syria, there to assist Assad’s regime. Any U.S. invasion could accidentally touch off conflict between U.S. and Russian troops within Syria, perhaps leading to a war between the two powers. Certainly, the added wrinkle of Russia has made Washington hesitant to go in with guns blazing.
But now Assad has used chemical weapons again, causing more civilian suffering, and it’s no longer Barack Obama who is occupying the Oval Office. Tough-talking Donald Trump is the new president, and he is facing a conundrum. Earlier this spring, he upset several prominent members of his own party by declaring that the removal of Bashar al-Assad as dictator of Syria was no longer a U.S. priority. Now, he is hinting that significant military action against Assad might be on the table again, and made good on his threat Thursday night by striking Syrian military bases with cruise missiles.
While the use of cruise missiles may temporarily invigorate Trump’s more militaristic supporters, such a move does not a true war president make: Both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama utilized cruise missiles and other air strikes to substitute for boots on the ground. American citizens may appreciate that cruise missiles and drone strikes hit foes heavily without risking the lives of our soldiers, but critics contend that such unmanned weapons are not as effective as we like to think.
Unmanned weapons rely on using pre-gathered intelligence, which can be faulty. Enemy facilities are indeed destroyed, but high-value targets may have already left the scene. Decoy facilities may be hit instead of ones of military value. Strikes may go awry and cause tremendous collateral damage.
To guarantee that an enemy is down, you have to put boots on the ground- which means American men and women will be killed. Donald Trump has crafted a public image that says he has the steel to do just such a thing if the greater good requires it. By criticizing predecessor Barack Obama as weak, Trump has tacitly insisted that he will go further when it comes to military measures against threats to democracy.
Since Obama used airstrikes in Syria in 2014, does going further imply that Trump will use ground forces? Despite the sound and fury about the 59 cruise missiles launched, Trump’s new Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has announced that there has been no departure from “Syria policy.” It remains to be seen whether the cruise missile attack on Assad’s air base was a one-time punishment for the dictator’s recent use of chemical weapons, or part of a broader campaign to oust the authoritarian ruler. As with many things related to Donald Trump, seeking clarity is difficult.
The president’s ambivalence on Syria mirrors his ambivalence on the military in general. Although the president has controversially vowed to increase defense spending by a whopping ten percent, he has also insisted that the U.S. will not be engaging in foreign wars. An isolationist defense hawk is a strange, ironic bird, especially since there are no realistic potential invaders of our nation. Need we spend $54 billion more on defense when no foe shows any interest, much less ability, in conquering U.S. territory?
Defense hawks will cheer the use of cruise missiles and point to Syria as a reason why the U.S. must bolster military spending, but opponents of such spending will claim that Trump’s militarism is immature, unnecessary, and wasteful. They will also point out that, unlike Obama, Trump has not sought congressional approval for using military force directly against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Political opponents may argue that Trump’s salvo of cruise missiles was more about garnering positive commander-in-chief press and making a case for his excessive defense spending plans ahead of an April 28 federal budget deadline.
Will Trump continue down the path to removing Assad from power and prove that America needs to maintain a robust, multi-theater-capable military… or is he more bark than bite?