Following Napoleon’s murder in March 1804 of the Duc d’Enghien, Napoleon’s chief of police, Joseph Fouché, said of the murder “C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute” –“It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” President Trump’s missile strike on Sharyat air base in Syria was like the Duc d’Enghien’s murder, not just a crime but a blunder.
Reasons given for why President Trump ordered the missile strike differ.
President Trump himself claims it was due to his revulsion at the horror of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which he insists – but which no independent investigation has confirmed – was carried out by President Assad’s air force.
US Secretary of State Tillerson and President Trump’s National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster say the same thing, but also say the missile strike was a signal of the President’s toughness and his unwillingness to tolerate the crossing of his red lines.
Others more cynically claim it was to distract attention away from Russiagate and to secure the President’s position in Washington.
There is probably truth to all these claims. However none of them change the fact that the missile strike was a big mistake. Here’s why:
(1) All of the evidence suggests that the missile strike was a demonstration of force and that the President does not intend it to escalate into a campaign for regime change in Syria.
Not only was that what Tillerson and McMaster said at their joint news conference but the strike itself – with the Russians and the Syrians given hours of warning time before it happened, and with the strike itself limited in scope and carried out on a far smaller scale than the one President Obama apparently envisaged in 2013 – suggest the same thing.
That suggests that the President still does not want to become bogged down in a regime change war in Syria.
If so he will soon find that he has put himself on the slippery slope.
Just as the sacking of General Flynn emboldened the President’s critics in the Russiagate affair, causing the scandal to escalate far beyond the point it had reached before, so the missile attack on Sharyat air base has fed red meat to the regime change hardliners in Washington and elsewhere. They will certainly come back for more, and having given them red meat once the President is now in a much weaker position to refuse them.
Moreover regardless of what exactly happened at Khan Sheikhoun, the Jihadis in Syria now know that all they have to do is stage a chemical attack and the President will oblige them by launching missiles on President Assad’s forces without an investigation and without seeking Congressional or UN Security Council approval. That all but guarantees that staging more chemical attacks is precisely what the Jihadis will now do.
One does not have to be a prophet to see how this situation could escalate from now on, even if that is not the President’s wish, and how he is now in a much weaker position to prevent that happening.
(2) The President started his Presidency by saying he wanted to improve relations with Russia. Not only has he instead enraged the Russians, making relations with Russia even worse than they already were, but the Russians are certain to see the missile strike as a challenge and will respond accordingly. Already they are talking about beefing up Syria’s air defences and have closed down the hotline between their military in Syria and that of the US.
Not only will that complicate the US’s anti-ISIS operations in Syria, but it magnifies the risk of a dangerous confrontation with the Russians in Syria, which is precisely.what the President and his officials – as shown by their tip-off to the Russians before the strike – obviously want to avoid.
(3) Then there is the key issue of trust.
Within just a week, following reports of a single attack, the President has reversed course, going from a position where he appeared to be accepting the reality that President Assad will remain the leader of Syria to one where he is attacking him and where his officials are once more talking of the importance of removing him.
Not only will the Russians conclude that this President is someone who cannot be trusted, but governments around the world – including many of the US’s key European allies – will be shocked at how easy it is for this President to reverse course and to do the opposite of what he said he would do before, and do so moreover without any proper discussion or consultation, and without even pretending to observe the forms of international and domestic law.
In international relations consistency is the quality which more than any other is the one that is most prized. Governments need to be sure that a Great Power like the US follows consistent policies. That way other governments can adjust their own policies to take into account those of the US.
It was for this reason, because launching the attack so completely trashed the President’s reputation for consistency in his conduct of policy, that before the missile attack I doubted it would happen.
Governments around the world – including the government of China, whose President the US has just hosted – now know that with this administration the US can reverse policy at the drop of a hat. Not only will that worry them but they now also know that whatever this President says cannot be trusted because he can go back on it so quickly.
That will inevitably make international affairs more unstable, since governments now know that this President cannot be fully trusted, something which will make it more difficult for him to cut the deals he craves.
(4) If the President believed when he launched his missiles that it would end criticism of him and obstruction of his administration by his opponents, then he will be quickly discover that it has done no such thing. The President’s opponents have far too much invested in the narrative of Donald Trump the new Mussolini or Caligula to back off from it now. I doubt they will even back off from the Russiagate allegations, absurd though those are.
Within a few days, once the plaudits for the missile strikes have faded, the President will quickly find that the view of him of his opponents in Washington is the same as always, and that if anything, by launching his missile strike without first consulting Congress, he has given them another stick with which to beat him with. I note that Nancy Pelosi – one of the President’s most vehement critics – is already calling for a full debate in the House to discuss the issue of authorisation for the President’s action.
(5) By contrast, if the President has not won over his critics, he has beyond question upset and demoralised the most intelligent and vocal part of his own political base.
One of the most interesting facts about the events of the last few days is that whilst Barack Obama’s liberal supporters continued to back him even as he went back entirely on the anti-war stance he appeared to hold before he was elected, Donald Trump’s supporters take their anti-war and anti-interventionist position extremely seriously, and are not prepared to compromise on it. The result is that far from defending the President for what he has done, they have turned on him and feel betrayed.
Donald Trump himself senses this. This is shown by the fact that since the missile attack, far from assuming a triumphalist tone, he has only mentioned the attack twice in tweets, one a token tweet congratulating the military for the success of the operation, the other a highly defensive tweet in which he tried to explain away the lack of damage to the runway. Otherwise, except in formal statements such as his letter to Congress, he has avoided talking about it.
Indeed it is not impossible that the result of the missile attack – especially if it is followed by others – will be to revive a moribund anti-war movement which had all but disappeared during Obama’s Presidency. It is easy to see how the right and left wings of this movement might now come together – as happened during the Presidency of George W. Bush – in the case of the anti-movement’s right wing because it genuinely opposes interventionist wars, in the case of the anti-war movement’s left wing because some of its members sincerely oppose interventionist wars but mainly because it hates a right wing Republican President.
Needless to say if such a thing does happen then the President’s political problems will multiply a thousand-fold.
The first law of politics – in the US as everywhere else – is to look after your own base. All successful politicians understand this. On Friday Donald Trump shocked and upset his base, and once the temporary afterglow of the missile strike wares off (which it quickly will) he will pay the political price.
What the events of the last week show is that almost a hundred days after his inauguration Donald Trump remains an amateur who continues to be out of his depth. Instead of making carefully judged decisions he makes his decisions on impulse, in a hurry and on the fly.
Sometimes, in the short term, some of these decisions help him. More often they cause him problems. Over time, because of the ill-judged and hurried way he makes his decisions, they will make more and more problems for him. Moreover there doesn’t seem much evidence so far of his learning from his mistakes. The missile strike on Syria was the biggest one by far, but it is all too likely that more and worse will follow.