Even when President Trump appears to have done the right thing it can leave you scratching your head.
The unexpected cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base in response to the despicable President Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people was measured and appropriate. In fact, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier recommended the same tactic to keep Assad’s air force from getting off the ground to wage chemical warfare on innocents. But few expected Trump to take that course.
This is the “America First” president, who campaigned on a pledge to not get overly involved in foreign disputes. Yet by taking military action against the Assad regime he may have opened the door to greater U.S. intervention in a civil war in which Russia, which Trump has been accused of being too cozy, is decidedly on the other side. Moscow was quick to denounce the missile strikes launched from two U.S. destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The strikes came after the Pentagon provided evidence that a chemical attack Tuesday on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib Province was carried out by Syrian aircraft that flew from the Shayrat air base. Video and photographs of the aftermath showed dozens of victims, including small children, some dead, others convulsing, coughing up blood, or foaming at the mouth as they gasped for enough breath to stay alive. The Turkish Health Ministry said tests indicated sarin, a banned nerve agent, was used to commit the atrocity.
In announcing the missile strikes Thursday night, Trump said, “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” He said years of previous attempts to change Assad’s behavior had all failed, leading to continuation of the Syrian civil war and a subsequent refugee crisis that in destabilizing the region threatens the United States and its allies.
So, what comes next? Trump has been fighting accusations that his election campaign may have colluded with the Russians to help him win the presidency. But his attack on the Syrian air base is in a sense a rebuke of Russia, which was supposed to have worked out a deal with Assad in 2013 to destroy his chemical weapons arsenal. A Pentagon spokesman says Russian forces in Syria were warned of the imminent missile strikes on the airfield so they could get out of harm’s way.
Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said Trump should take additional military steps to cripple Assad’s air force. But Trump may not be willing to go that far. After all, early last week he seemed visibly unmoved by images of the Khan Sheikhoun victims. Trump must consider the Russian response to any U.S. escalation. Next week’s scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian President Putin should provide some indication of that.
More importantly, Trump must consider the response of the American public. A wave of sympathy for the gassed victims of the murderous Assad will dissipate like the wind if Americans feel this country is being drawn into another long, indecipherable war in the Mideast where it’s difficult to tell who is friend or foe.