Donald Trump fired a slew of Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase last week, and the war hawks are partying like it’s 2002.
The term “moral clarity” has been hauled out of mothballs, as has the word “isolationism” (to the extent that one was ever retired). On Twitter, those found to be insufficiently belligerent toward the Assad regime are told to “shut up,” while those who point out the complexity of the Syrian war are labeled “cowardly.” Congress, which spent years in self-flagellation over the fiasco of the Iraq war, suddenly stands almost in lockstep behind Trump’s attack, while a small handful of dissenters is elbowed over to the exotically perfumed fringe.
The hawks are having a moment. They’re exceptionally good at this sort of thing, brushing aside nuances and nagging questions, condensing deeply intricate situations into singular questions of moral courage and marginalizing those who still answer “no.” Never has it felt more like the febrile prelude to the Iraq war, and for some, that’s precisely the point. They miss those simple arrangements of good guys and enemies, those easy blacks and whites, which were scuttled after Iraq was plunged into grays and it became clear that the United States hadn’t been the missionary of freedom that they’d intended.
Now their ideology is getting another shot courtesy of the most unlikely of presidents and against an enemy that truly can be the black in their monochromatic color scheme, the vicious and homicidal Assad regime. And yet, they’re still likely to end up crestfallen. What most of them are after is pressure applied militarily by the United States against both the Syrian government and Russia until Assad folds. That’s almost certainly not going to happen: in fact, Trump’s policy is more likely to end up resembling those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, long scorned by the hawks.
Consider what’s been done so far: a single missile strike against an airfield in Syria whose jets managed to launch the next day and whose setback administration officials strenuously emphasized was only a pinprick meant to deter further chemical weapons use. Hawks bashed Barack Obama for telegraphing his foreign policy plans to our enemies, yet that’s exactly what the Trump administration did by saying this was a one-and-done. Many years before, hawks belittled Bill Clinton’s occasional fits of ordnance tossed at Saddam Hussein as “cruise missile diplomacy,” including George W. Bush, who repudiated his predecessor after 9/11 by saying, “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.” An airfield is more valuable than a tent, surely, but was this not the same sort of cursory strike so deplored under Democratic presidents?
It is possible that the Trump administration will escalate further against Assad. Nothing is certain right now, since Rex Tillerson has been sending more signals than a malfunctioning stoplight, saying one day that “there is no change to [American] military posture” against Assad and the next that the Syrian regime was “coming to an end.” But hardly appears to be the comprehensively punitive policy that so many national security types on the right desired.
Yet the fallout has been substantial. Russia and Iran have indicated that America has crossed a “red line” and promised to double down on their support for Assad. Russian jets, meanwhile, defiantly dropped incendiary thermite on two Syrian towns last weekend. Russia has also scrapped an information-sharing agreement meant to prevent collisions with American jets over Syria, sending the message: the United States isn’t welcome here. Across the continent, contra Marco Rubio’s fatuous pronouncement that Kim Jong-un would be trembling over the Syria strike, North Korea has again threatened the United States with nuclear war, while China, in an echo from the past, deployed 150,000 troops to the Yalu River as deterrence against a potential American attack.
The world is not safer thanks to Trump’s missile strikes — it’s more dangerous. Our adversaries are not spooked; they’re less placable than before. American military force is always more likely to calcify the thinking of peripheral nations rather than whip them into line. Perhaps Tillerson can wring some positive change from the Kremlin this week, but if not, he’ll be left with a dare: go ahead, dive deeper into Syria, reap the whirlwind. It’s difficult to see Donald Trump taking that bait.