US missile strikes against the Syrian airbase surprised many, including the American State Department. After condemning the previous administration for meddling in conflicts where the US had no direct national interest, President Trump has changed his tune. The most important questions are why and what happens next?
Testimony by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley before the UN Security Council gives the first hint. Haley dramatically brought forth photos of children killed by the use of chemical weapons, a tactic used more than once by US diplomats at the UN. It is unclear what the relationship is between Haley and Trump, but certainly the President was influenced by the photos and whatever other evidence provided to him. This is not the first time that emotive images of children dying led to an intervention: President George H W Bush ordered the US military to intervene in Somalia in 1992 after seeing pictures of children starving.
President Trump, from what we know of him, is prone to quick decision making. Moreover, as can be seen in his tweets and statements, anger plays an important role in motivating him to act. Together, the legitimate compassion for children’s deaths with his emotional response help explain this action.
But we should not explain this decision purely on the basis of President Trump’s personality. American interventions have, over time, demonstrated a strong punitive ethos. From the attempt to capture the Mexican leader Pancho Villa in 1916 to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, US leaders have long sought to use force to punish ‘bad guys’. American culture provides one explanation for this tendency, which encourages a binary vision of the world and Americans are the ones to ensure a righteous outcome prevails. Making America great again includes showing everyone how good it is.
What happens next? This is where the problems start, for single strikes never produce coherent outcomes. To simply take out some of its air force and possibly destroy some of its chemical munitions will slow down attacks for a short time, but this will not solve the problem. In fact, it will undoubtedly make things worse, as the Russians gear up to defend Assad and Israel may well be pulled in. As President Obama knew, the US has no traditional interests in Syria, a country with no oil resources and no security interests. The humanitarian argument remains the only one to motivate action, but without a long-term engagement by the US, the humanitarian situation will only deteriorate.
Military actions that arise from bursts of anger and that punish bad guys might make Americans and others feel good in the short term, but they will not help Syria move toward a resolution of its long and bloody conflict.
Professor Anthony F Lang Jr
Head of School
School of International Relations