Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Among the many adjectives one could use to describe President Trump’s strike against the brutal Syrian regime — impulsive, forceful, presidential, rash — one word stands out: confusing. No one expected this. Why would the president, after warning against anti-regime military action for years, suddenly turn to Tomahawk missiles? And why would President Assad use chemical weapons at all? The strikes disrupted America’s political equilibrium: The McCain-Graham duo echoed Trump’s recent judgment, Democratic leaders tentatively supported their foe and the alt-right was furious with their champion.
Confusion is an appropriate reaction to the strikes. Trump’s decision is simultaneously good, bad and ugly.
The Good: Vladimir Putin has a dream. He dreams that, someday, the post-World War II world order will collapse. He wants to rid the planet of NATO, the United Nations and internationally recognized human rights. In his dream, nation-states compete for regional and global primacy, unbound by humanitarian concerns.
If Putin’s dream is realized, world affairs would resemble the Syrian civil war. In Syria, Assad holds onto power using whatever means necessary. Russia props up Assad to maintain a regional power base and protect its naval facility in Tartus. Iran backs Syria, its key ally against the U.S.-aligned Sunni states in the Middle East. And the Sunni states — among them Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — financially support rebel groups because they want to cripple Iran and reassert Sunni dominance in the region. In Syria, nation-states engage in a self-interested struggle, violating international laws and norms with impunity.
Look, I love Barack Obama like the alt-right loves the word “cuck,” but I think Syria was Obama’s greatest failure. By failing to enforce his red line on chemical weapons, Obama ensured that Syria would remain a moral vacuum. Striking Assad isn’t a panacea, but Obama’s dereliction of duty allowed the actors in Syria to drop their humanitarian pretenses. The combatants in the civil war knew they could torture civilians, bomb hospitals and gas children without consequence. There was no one to stop them.
Trump’s Syria mission suggests a departure from his predecessor, offering a glimmer of hope that human rights will be enforced in Syria.
The Bad: If Trump’s decision gives a glimmer of hope, it’s a faint one. Chemical weapons are undoubtedly vile, but an isolated attack will not prevent Assad and his allies from brazenly killing civilians by other methods. It will not stop ISIS fighters from raping Yazidi women, or Kurdish forces from using child soldiers.
The Syrian civil war is the humanitarian crisis of our time. Nearly 500,000 people have lost their lives and 4.8 million have become refugees. Trump’s decision fails to meaningfully improve Syrians’ lives. I don’t doubt that the president was affected by the deaths of those “beautiful babies” who died in the chemical weapons attack. He should honor their lives by reversing his refugee ban and announcing a surge in humanitarian aid.
The Ugly: Unlike with many issues, Trump had a firm stance on Syria. Get rid of ISIS, but don’t bother fighting Assad. In fact, Trump tweeted to then-President Obama about this, saying, “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN. ” In late March, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that U.S. policy was no longer focused on removing Assad from power.
So, what happened? Well, it appears that grotesque images of Syrians dying from the chemical weapons attack moved Trump to strike. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, “He was very moved and found the event extremely tragic, so I think from the get-go it was very, very disturbing and tragic and moving to him.”
This is where the situation becomes ugly and dangerous. The president should have a set of values that govern his foreign policy decision-making. He should have a coherent ideological framework that allows him to balance American interests against humanitarian commitments.
For a long time, everyone thought they knew Trump’s doctrine: “America First.” Trump believed that foreign entanglements were crippling America. It’s best, he thought, to withdraw from our role as international policeman and focus on rebuilding the homeland. I don’t agree with it, but “America First” is a coherent doctrine.
If Trump is willing to scrap a major policy position after seeing a disturbing video, America’s role on the world stage will be impulsive and schizophrenic. Will President Trump order an attack on the Philippines after watching military forces murder a drug addict? Could he start a war with North Korea after seeing a picture of a North Korean labor camp?
Trump’s foreign policy decision-making is a recipe for selective outrage and international disorder. This is the ugly underbelly of his action in Syria. With Trump as commander-in-chief, the world will wait nervously to see where the leader of the free word directs his wrath next.
Max Foley-Keene is a freshman government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.