Recent US actions in Syria and criticism of Russia prove that the reality of governing is a perspective like no other, which President Trump may be slowly coming around to appreciating.
There was something for everyone in America’s punitive cruise missile strike on the Syrian airbase earlier this month.
For President Donald Trump, it may have been the first jolting lesson in the reality of governing, as opposed to populist campaigning and pot-shot tweeting. For his American supporters, it may be a dangerous step into the very trap he warned about in his campaign and, even worse, capitulation to Washington’s “administrative state.” His American critics on the right will be heartened by his assertion of US power after eight years of seeming backpedaling from America’s position of preeminence in the Middle East. His critics on the left will take little solace that an otherwise mercurial and under-prepared chief executive has taken to strong-arm tactics in the volatile Middle East. America’s Arab friends and many in Europe already have expressed their near unanimous approval of the attack.
But the major players in the Syria tragi-drama — the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran — and the rest of the world are scratching their heads. Is there a policy behind these strikes? Does it represent America’s re-engagement in the crisis? Was it an act of reprisal only or is Washington back in the regime-change mode (i.e., the removal of Assad)?
Trump seemed to have delivered on his predecessor’s infamously drawn red line of 2013, which Barack Obama subsequently reversed once challenged by Damascus. He instead took up a non-military exit offered by Moscow via Syria’s purported surrender of its chemical weapon arsenal, now proven to be less than complete.
Then presumed-candidate Trump famously tweeted that Obama’s red line would be a waste of US resources and strongly urged non-intervention in the Syrian quagmire. But photos of children and infant victims of Syria’s April 4 sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib Province apparently moved President Trump in a way that similar photos of the far worse attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, in August 2013 did not.
REALITY OF GOVERNING
Perhaps perspective — that is from the Oval Office versus the gilded Trump Tower of New York City — had something to do with it. Would this president, known for an assertive, forceful style, stand by idly as a reviled dictator again used a banned chemical weapon on his own population? The reality of governing is a perspective like no other, which Trump may be slowly coming around to appreciating, even if his erstwhile supporters may not.
But the larger question looms. What now?
In a way, the attack opens the door for American constructive involvement on the crisis by giving it the leverage it has lacked for several years now. That American absence greatly advantaged Assad and his Russian and Iranian minders, the real decision makers now in this country wracked by six years of conflict.
If so, however, Trump will need a strategy to actually take a seat at the negotiating table. One attack and some harsh rhetoric may get the US back in the room, but a seat at the table requires leverage. Is America prepared to employ its formidable military strength in the region — even absent many boots on the ground — to push for an end to the civil war? There’s been nothing yet to suggest that such a strategy may be forthcoming.
So, for the time being, the attack seems only to have put Assad on notice that he can likely expect similar punitive action if he attempts such attacks again, but nothing more. This is perhaps better than Obama’s hands-off approach, but little in the way of hope for the more than 4.5 million refugees, equal number of displaced Syrians and vast majority of remaining Syrians desperately aching for an end to their blood-stained national nightmare.
“AN ALL-TIME LOW”
The bigger surprise may actually be the apparent US falling out with Russia. Almost immediately after the attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley both proffered comments critical of Russia, with some non-sourced US officials claiming Russian complicity in the Syrian gas attack. After his secretary of state’s visit to Moscow, President Trump pronounced US-Russia relations at “an all-time low.”
Juxtaposed against the sweet words that came out of the Mar-a-Lago summit between the US president and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and then the “NATO is not obsolete” U-turn, one can be forgiven for political whiplash à la Donald Trump. Americans were told that Russia could be our friend and partner but the Chinese were public enemy number one and NATO was out of fashion.
The Syria episode and other military-related news may have helped move the Russian interference in the US elections to the proverbial backburner. But both the House and Senate have launched investigations, and the FBI’s probe also continues in earnest. The US-Russia reset touted by Trump has been dashed before it even had a chance to leave the starting line. And it’ll likely get worse. Syria is only one of several friction points that Washington has with Moscow. The momentum is clearly moving diametrically opposed to the direction on which Trump campaigned, much to the relief of Americans on both the left and right.
There are other signs that the Oval Office perspective is changing Donald Trump — from personnel changes within the White House to muted criticism of foreign trade. More are needed to be sure. For example, if the Middle East intends to be an area of focus for the president, as it indeed should, it would help to have in the room when key decisions must be made diplomats with real knowledge and experience. Judging from one photo of the president meeting with his key staff reportedly before the Syria decision, the president and Tillerson probably could use a seasoned diplomat with knowledge of and experience in the Middle East and the Syrian crisis. Trump still has some way to trek up the presidential learning curve.
For now, America has a president who is learning and changing from the man sworn in on January 20. Russia has an American president it did not foresee and for whom it may be looking for the return receipt. Assad has one more worry. And the people of Syria still have no country and no hope.