President Donald Trump’s airstrikes against Syria were of dubious legality. They were hypocritical. They were impulsive. They may have had political motivations. They create new risks for the United States.
But most of all, they were right.
I’m deeply suspicious of Trump’s policies and competence, but this is a case where he is right and Barack Obama was wrong. Indeed, many of us believe that Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake was his passivity in Syria.
One of Trump’s problems is that he has lied so much and so often that he doesn’t have credibility at home or abroad in a foreign crisis like this. I likewise find it unnerving that he came to the right decision in an impulsive way. Should a president’s decisions about war really depend on the photos taken?
Yet for all my distrust of Trump’s motivations and capacity to execute a strategy, here’s why I believe he was right.
Since the horrors of mustard gas during World War I a century ago, one of the world’s more successful international norms has been a taboo on the use of chemical weapons. This is not just about Syria but also about deterring the next dictator from turning to sarin.
For an overstretched military, poison gas is a convenient way to terrify and subdue a population. The best way for the world to change the calculus is to show that use of chemical weapons carries a special price — such as a military strike on an airbase.
Paradoxically, Assad may have used chemical weapons because he perceived a green light from the Trump administration. In recent days, Rex Tillerson, Sean Spicer and Nikki Haley all suggested that it was no longer U.S. policy to push for his removal, and that may have emboldened him. That mistake made it doubly important for Trump to show that neither Assad nor any leader can get away with using weapons of mass destruction.
Many of my fellow progressives viscerally oppose any use of force, but I think that’s a mistake. I was against the Iraq War, but some military interventions save lives. The no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s is one example, and so are the British intervention in Sierra Leone and French intervention in Mali. It’s imprudent to reject any use of force categorically.
In Syria, the crucial question is what comes next.
There’s some bold talk among politicians about ousting Assad from Syria. Really? People have been counting on Assad’s fall for six years now, and he’s as entrenched as ever.
Moreover, air strips can be rebuilt, and if this was a one-time strike then the larger slaughter in Syria will continue indefinitely. But I’m hoping that the administration may use it as a tool to push for a cease-fire.
My proposed course in Syria is the same one that Hillary Clinton and many others have favored: missile strikes to ground Assad’s small air force. This should help end the barrel bombs and make Assad realize that he has no military solution, and that it’s time for negotiation. The most plausible negotiated outcome would be a long-term cease-fire and de facto partition of Syria, putting off reintegration until Assad is no longer around.
For all the legitimate concerns about the risks ahead, now again we just might have a window to curb the bloodshed in Syria. I’m glad Trump took the important first step of holding Assad accountable for using chemical weapons. But it’s all going to depend now on whether Trump, who so far has been a master of incompetence, can manage the far more difficult challenge of using war to midwife peace.