On Friday, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom launched twice as many missile strikes against Syria’s chemical weapons capability as the United States did last year on its own. The United States has twice struck Bashar al-Assad’s regime for crossing President Donald Trump’s red line, and the second time did so in coalition with European powers and hit harder.
Why underscore that? Because despite much commentary that Trump really wants to get out of Syria and that this latest strike was really about chemical weapons, there is a bigger picture than chemical weapons or Syria. The Trump administration is not simply spanking a rogue regime for human rights atrocities and war crimes. They are showing Russia, Iran, and others what happens when aggressive powers try to shape the world order to their interests and contrary to those of the West.
There is no doubt that President Trump, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and French President Emmanuel Macron were motivated by Syria’s horrific crimes against innocent civilians. But Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not happening in a vacuum. It is the last five years of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian behavior—and the failures of the Obama regime—that have brought us to this point.
The Obama Administration Messed Up Royally
President Obama’s greatest error was not simply drawing red lines regarding Syrian chemical weapons use then failing to enforce them. Rather, his greatest failure was failing to appreciate that Russia and Iran have been angling for years to control the fate of the Middle East. He blew it, and they took advantage of his fecklessness by acting contrary to U.S. interests and those of our allies in the region.
They now have unacceptable leverage over the region. Russia isn’t enamored of Assad, and neither is Iran. Assad is a loser who can’t hold his country together without outside support. He is nothing more than an opportunity for them.
But holding Assad in contempt doesn’t mean these regimes can’t recognize a bird’s nest on the ground when they see it. When Obama failed to act in time to stop the Islamic State’s rise, drew red lines and didn’t enforce them, and foolishly turned over to Russia the task of curbing the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability, he gave Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei a gift: massive leverage in the Middle East.
That’s so much so that Iran is bolstering a Shia crescent that threatens the United States, Israel, and Sunni powers allied with the United States (and putatively Israel), and Russia is once again able to shape events in the eastern Mediterranean after being boxed out by the United States for more than 40 years.
These Strikes Are an Important Diplomacy Tool
With this latest strike and the administration’s justifications for it, Trump’s foreign policy team has not only increased the pressure on Assad by decimating his chemical weapons capabilities, it has humiliated the Russian and Iranian regimes. That is important for our diplomacy regarding aggressive dictatorships.
The Russians take the world stage regularly to extol the virtues of international cooperation, their role in the war on terrorists, and respect for what they call legitimate regimes. Yet for years Putin has governed as a dictator who kills his political enemies at home and abroad; invades and occupies other countries; enables rogue regimes like Assad’s; and regularly harasses other states by violating international air space. Iran has also for years played the victim while supporting terrorism across the globe; threatening its neighbors; amassing nuclear weapons capability and pledging to use them to annihilate Israel and other Iranian enemies; and killing Americans in Iraq as it seeks to control that country’s future.
The Russian and Iranian regimes do these things because of who they are and what they believe in, not because any other state has provoked them. The Russian regime believes in its destiny as a great power equal to or stronger than the United States. The Iranian regime, depending on which violent leader we are discussing, believes in its right to be the leader of the Islamic world. Some believe they are key to ushering in the 12 Mahdi where we all get to live under Islam.
Neither regime will be talked out of its goals. They will respond only to force and the threat of it. Besides, they cannot do otherwise: each holds power not by bolstering free markets and free peoples at home, which is the foundation of a peaceful international order, but by pretending they are protecting their country from enemies at home and abroad. They do not seek to cooperate in an international order built by the West that serves freedom and growing prosperity. They seek to destroy that order so they might stay in power, shape the world, and benefit from hegemony over their regions.
The Trump administration is showing them the United States will not allow powers like these to control the future of countries we consider important for our interests and security, and by extension, the international order we built and must protect.
This Is about Securing World Stability
So this weekend’s actions are not simply about chemical weapons violations. True enough, if such weapons are used in “Nowherestan,” the United States and its coalition allies are not likely to bomb, even if a good argument can be made for enforcing international law against such crimes. The United States is not the world’s police force. But if such crimes take place in a region whose destabilization can lead to global disorder, and if they take place with the cooperation of powers, like Russia, that mean us ill, then the United States can and should act.
This weekend, the United States under Trump understood it had an interest in punishing Russian and Iranian hubris just as it did when the administration struck Syria the first time (while Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting with Trump—you can be sure this timing was a message for Xi and his ward in North Korea); provided lethal weapons to Ukraine; confronted Iran over Obama’s sweetheart deal with them; embraced fully a U.S.-Sunni partnership; sailed U.S. ships through the South China Sea; and went after rogue regimes’ elites and commercial interests.
Don’t expect U.S. rhetoric to match exactly what I am putting forth here. There has been some confirmation of it from Trump and May, and Vice President Mike Pence’s comments Saturday can be read as geopolitical and not just about chemical weapons crimes. But the administration likely has a strategy in mind to change the way U.S. enemies have gotten used to thinking after eight years of Obama.
Then they did as they pleased and paid little cost. Now they must understand that they are making a grave error if they seek to run the United States out of certain regions, threaten and deny our relations with allies, and force us to accommodate a world order that our enemies prefer. The United States will no longer tolerate banishment, threats, or intimidation of itself or its allies.
That Doesn’t Mean We’re Getting a Bush Retread
But just as the administration’s actions are not about regime change, intervention, or getting involved in civil wars, neither is it about force and missile strikes as the only path to peace and cooperation. It is about laying the groundwork for negotiated settlements where our enemies appreciate that it is a new day and that the United States is not a lap dog or paper tiger anymore.
The Trump foreign policy team is arguably the most Jacksonian we have seen in a while. It is not interested in policing the world, nor is it going to act on every human rights crisis that pops up. Its priority is national security, which means defending a world order that suits our security and economic interests and using force or the threat of it when necessary—and believing it will always be necessary.
Our enemies want a different order, and the Trump team is saying, “You can’t have it.” If someone is confused by Trump’s tweets versus Defense Secretary James Mattis’s statements, they are missing that big picture, or trying too hard to paint Trump as “unstrategic” and irrational.
Fine, he’s not like other presidents who measure every word and run their remarks by 20 aides. But I am pretty sure that not only our allies but also our enemies are clear on what is happening. Professors, bureaucrats, and people who trade stocks all day might be nervous, but they might calm themselves a bit if they’d first get past the uniqueness of the administration but also focus on what a great power like the United States is supposed to be doing in the world for its own interests.
What Rogue Nations, Enemies, and Terrorists Are Learning
Who is to learn the new lesson the Trump administration is teaching about how to get along with the United States? Iran and North Korea are rogue states for which there will likely never be peace until those regimes are gone. Russia, China, and Turkey are states who don’t have to be at serious odds with us but currently believe they can be. Hamas, Hezbollah, and various other terror organizations (Islamic State has pretty much learned the lesson even if it isn’t completely neutered) are just that, and they should learn the lesson that their only hope for survival is to go to ground and stay there, spending every moment of every day avoiding our deadly wrath.
Who is taking heart from the Trump administration’s policies and actions? Obviously Israel and the Sunni powers. But we can speculate that so, too, are our staunchest and boldest European allies— France and Great Britain (see here for an excellent essay on Western collaboration)—and many other states, those of NATO included, who had to bite their fingernails nervously during the Obama years as that administration gambled on the “arc of history bending,” or something.
Not all of these states are on the exact same page as the United States, but we are definitely in the same chapter. The United States is almost always several steps ahead of others. It is the destiny of the most powerful state to have to lead if there is to be a satisfactory order to the world.
Will this weekend’s actions be enough? That’s doubtful. Putin’s gonna Putin, Ayatollah’s gonna Ayatollah. They are who they are and have grown used to behaving as they do. It is the Trump administration’s job to help them clear their heads of the habits they acquired during the previous U.S. administration, to help them understand that their habits and goals must change or they will pay an ever-increasingly high price for them.
Strikes Alone Won’t Accomplish the Necessary Job
But Trump has another job: find, through diplomacy backed by force, a way for each of them to save some face as they accommodate themselves to U.S. interests. It can be done—indeed, it is being done as Trump has steadily ratcheted up the cost of their bad behavior despite all their bluster in response.
The president has a solid team around him, and there is plenty of evidence they are seeking the same policy goals and outcomes. Those nice things Trump has said about Putin and other bad actors? Well, there is clearly less of that now, but I always chalked it up to Trump’s style of negotiating, which is very personal. That requires a relationship where one can sit down with the other side and say hard things. If his interlocutors aren’t going to respond to that, at least he tried.
What Putin, Xi, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and others must be made to grasp is that the United States once again gets how the world works. We are the preeminent power, but not the only power. We have interests and they have interests. All are seeking their own advantage.
That is the starting point, not some vague and naïve notion of an international community that can automatically go to harmony once the bureaucrats and pundits are set free to organize by consulting their diplomacy manuals. The United States doesn’t have to eject Putin from the Middle East, but Putin can’t partner with a sworn enemy of the United States (Iran) to succor another regime (Syria), all of which constitutes a threat to the United States and its allies.
The United States doesn’t seek a weak, poor, and disorderly China, but China should understand that we will never leave them in charge of Asia, as our interests in trade and the sovereignty of our allies in Asia are important. The United States doesn’t seek a neutered Turkey, but neither can we tolerate a NATO member supporting terrorists, aligning with our enemies, threatening our friends, and making a hash of its domestic tranquility by treating a huge portion of its population as enemies solely for the regime’s political gain.
Not one of these states can afford to be on the wrong side of a United States when we are pursuing our interests. Not one of these dictatorial regimes who rule by force at home can afford to be seen as losing a struggle against the nation their masters say is their enemy. We have leverage and might; all we need is political will.
The United States can work with friend or foe as long as the goal is preserving a peaceful international order of sovereign states freely engaging in commerce—the order we and our allies built, not the one the gas-attacking, land-grabbing dictatorships want to build. True, it is always going to be harder to do this in a world with so many dictatorships, and we should work with zeal but also prudence in seeking to support democracy. Nevertheless, our goal should be preserving our preferred order because it is morally and strategically the right one.
For any regime that desires otherwise, that seeks an order favorable to their inhuman and violent ways, the United States will bleed them dry, making them pay indefinitely if not ultimately, until they are ready to drop their nefarious project.