National Affairs Column: What to make of Trump’s airstrike against Syria

by Thomas Walkom

In the cold light of day, here are seven observations on the U.S. missile attack against Syria.

First, it was illegal. Russian President Vladimir Putin makes that point and in this instance he is correct. Short of invoking the right of self-defence, it is a breach of international law to attack a state unless that attack is authorized by the United Nations Security Council.

U.S. President Donald Trump did not have such authorization. Nor did he try to obtain it.

Second, that doesn’t much matter to America and its allies. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a staunch defender of the UN, gave his unequivocal support to the attack.

It is not the first time Canada has backed an illegal international action. In 1999, Canada took part in a NATO attack against Serbia that was launched without UN approval, citing what it called the right to protect a vulnerable population from its own government.

Foes of Syrian President Bashar Assad argue that Russia would have vetoed any UN motion to authorize a strike against Syria. And they are doubtless correct. But that, of course, is the point of this particular international law: to make war difficult.

Third, with this strike Trump has completed his metamorphosis from Fortress America isolationist to international interventionist. He used to share Barack Obama’s reluctance to involve the U.S. in foreign adventures. He has reversed himself.

Think of it as Trump channelling his internal Hillary Clinton. Had she won last year’s presidential election, she would have wasted no time in ratcheting up military action against Assad. Trump is doing her work for her.

Here, he follows a long line of U.S. presidents, both Democrat and Republican, who couldn’t resist making use of America’s formidable military power.

In some cases, like the 1983 invasion of tiny Grenada, this worked out well for the U.S. In other cases, such as Afghanistan and Vietnam, it didn’t.

Fourth, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy involved in all of this. The strikes were ostensibly to punish Assad for a chemical attack that killed more than 80 in northern Syria, including, as Trump said Thursday, “beautiful” babies. But Assad’s forces have killed countless more beautiful babies with barrel bombs and conventional weapons. Why act against him now?

The standard answer is that chemical weapons are illegal under international law, which is true. Yet this law is enforced selectively. The U.S. famously did nothing to curtail Iraq’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Indeed, in some instances it helped Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But in that war, America was siding with Iraq.

Fifth, in terms of domestic U.S. politics, the missile strike was an inspired move. The videos of children choking on nerve gas are compellingly horrible.

It is not just that Trump was moved by these images. It is that he knew many Americans would be moved and would welcome the idea of their president delivering stern justice to the villains responsible.

Even Democratic lawmakers felt the need to praise a man who, until late Thursday evening, they had treated as public enemy number one.

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As an added bonus, now that Trump has faced down Russia, it will be harder for his critics to paint him as Putin’s accomplice in the alleged dirty tricks scandal of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Sixth, the attack shows the world that America remains willing to use brute force. But this can have perverse results.

North Korea, for instance, will probably not be deterred from continuing apace with its nuclear missile program. Quite the opposite. For Pyongyang, the lesson from this week’s airstrike is likely to be that when dealing with the U.S. only the threat of overwhelming retaliatory force works.

Put simply, if Assad had nuclear weapons Trump would have been more cautious.

Seventh, we don’t know where this will end. So far, the Trump administration is painting the strike as a one-off warning rather than the beginning of something bigger.

But wars have a habit of growing. The U.S. already has close to 1,000 combat troops on the ground in Syria fighting Daesh terrorists. Republican Sen. John McCain is calling on Trump to set up and enforce no-fly zones to counter Assad.

If this missile strike proves popular, Trump may find the prospect of more war irresistible.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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