It's not hard to make the case that the recent chemical weapons use in Syria was more a test for the new US president then an advisable military action. Clearly, the deaths achieved with nerve gas could have been duplicated with conventional arms. But after the actions – or, more accurately, inactions – of the feckless Obama administration, it would be instructive for the Syrian dictator, as well as his Russian sponsor, to take the measure of President Trump.
The US response makes it clear that a red line finally exists, whether stated or not.
The CW use occurred either with Putin’s consent, or with Assad’s belief that Putin would be amenable. Indeed, right after the fact, Russia termed the US move an “aggression against a sovereign nation” on a “made-up pretext.” Tepid stuff from the former occupier of Eastern Europe. Stronger words followed but the initial reaction speaks volumes.
The timing of our retaliation was also telling, occurring during the visit of China's president Xi Jinping. Despite the weak transnational behavior of our prior administration, the US never quite vacated the position of premier world power. And the current reaction of China, the second highest military spender, has been more muted than that of Russia. After our air strike, China condemned the chemical attack but didn’t go so far as to speak against the ensuing US involvement.
And notably, China’s call for an independent UN investigation of the chemical use opens them up to positioning with us and is apt to put the lie to Russia’s claim of a made-up pretext. A smart move for us would be to oppose UN sponsorship in favor of an inquiry involving us, China and perhaps a few other select participants. With the Chinese having initiated the call and the Russians claiming it was rebel-stockpiled sarin (a dubious position at best), after it's clear that the weapons were delivered by the Syrian air force, it would be quite a diplomatic achievement to have the communist Chinese take our side against the quasi-communist Russians. The investigation ought to be a simple affair with capable parties being able to quickly determine whether the toxic gas came from military rockets or stored chemicals.
Those deriding Trump for acting unilaterally seemingly don’t understand that these actions never occur without input, in this case with the advice of and execution by our immensely capable Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. The best leaders surround themselves with the best people and Trump’s foreign policy team is showing itself up to the task.
In contrast, after Syria’s dalliance with poison gas in 2013, Barack Obama was on the verge of pretending to hold Assad accountable for the deaths when Putin seized on a foolish phrase from John Kerry about agreeing to a “hypothetical” trade of weapons for absolution. Even after forty years on the world stage, Kerry hadn’t learned the consequences of ill-considered public comments so Obama outsourced US foreign policy to Moscow.
Today, despite all the Left’s bluster about Rex Tillerson’s compromised relationship with the Russians, he’s proving himself with his clear and eminently defensible statement on their involvement: "Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement." No words like that ever came out of the previous administration. It's rare to see the Russians a bit back on their heels but that’s what’s occurring.
President Trump has now done something his predecessor never had the spine to do: take action to specifically deter atrocities and crimes against humanity. And make no mistake; this was a situation entirely of Obama’s making. He created an imaginary “red line,” he flinched when it was crossed and then, under the pretext of having Russia remove Syria’s chemical weapons, he let Assad-sponsor Putin step in and do what turned out to be nothing.
Moving forward, our recent action at a minimum has the potential to steer world events in a better direction.
No one can know what the upshot to all this will be. The international, four-dimensional chess game known as foreign relations is always ripe for surprises. But for this snapshot in time, the strike was the better thing to do.
May God grant the Trump administration the wisdom and the ability to continue making the better decisions.