In a national address Friday night, President Donald Trump informed the American people that the United States was, at that moment, undertaking military action in Syria. The U.S. military, along with our British and French allies, carried out what Secretary of Defense James Mattis called “precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.”
In his address, the president said, “America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria,” leading some to think that this attack would perhaps involve more than sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and air-launched weapons like Lockheed Martin‘s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, or JASSM-ER. In would seem, though, that he was only reiterating his desire to see an end to the U.S. ground role in the fight against ISIS in Syria’s north and east and not signaling a wider military response.
Shades of the USS Abraham Lincoln
Early Saturday morning, Trump took to Twitter to brag about the attacks’ effectiveness. “Could not have had a better result,” he said, adding, “Mission Accomplished!” This was a staggeringly bad idea.
Anyone who remembers the sight of President George W. Bush landing on that aircraft carrier and delivering speech in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner should cringe at the very thought that this one strike of 105 missiles accomplished any sort of well-defined military mission.
Trump said the attack was designed to “establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread and use of chemical weapons” like those used in the Douma attack last week. Most of the evidence points to a weaponized form of chlorine, which under the various chemical weapons treaties is not a banned weapon. But based on symptoms observed in many victims of the attack, the U.S. and aid groups strongly suspect Syria used sarin gas, a “non-persistent nerve agent” which western militaries call “GB.”
Under that very narrow definition of the mission, then one can argue it was a success. But almost no one will look at it that way.
The coalition attacks struck at Syrian chemical research, production, and storage facilities in Damascus and Homs. This will degrade the Assad regime’s ability to develop and deploy chemical weapons, but it’s unlikely to prevent them altogether. Nor is it even likely to be much of a deterrent.
This will haunt the president
A year ago, in a strike on a single airfield, the Pentagon claims to have destroyed 20 percent of Syria’s air force. And yet as Mattis said Friday night, “Clearly the Assad regime did not get the message.”
The next time Assad employs chemical weapons—and there will almost certainly be a next time—the world will recall the president’s words and conclude that Friday’s attacks did not, in fact, accomplish their mission.
In 2003, Bush was correct in a narrow sense. If one viewed the mission in Iraq only to be one to defeat the Iraqi army and topple the government of Saddam Hussein, then yes, the mission was a success. But the U.S. was woefully unprepared to manage what came next. Iraq’s descent into chaos and the ensuing bloody insurgency ensured that the “Mission Accomplished” banner would hang like an albatross around George Bush’s neck for the remainder of his tenure and beyond.
The same will hold true here. There is really no easy way to measure deterrence, since deterrence is not the same as outright prevention. Another Assad chemical attack would not be evidence that we did not deter him; it would only show two things: that we didn’t completely destroy his ability to employ these weapons, and he calculated the gains from their use to be worth whatever punishment he thought the U.S. and its allies would deliver in further retaliation.
Trump would be able to argue that we did deter Assad, who decided to proceed despite the dangers. But again, no one will look at it like that. The public and the press, not fond of giving Trump the benefit of the doubt in anything, will equate deterrence with prevention and mockingly point to the Mission Accomplished tweet as evidence of the president’s lack of understanding.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. I still believe these strikes were the right thing to do, even if they were not as strong a response as I had argued they should have been. But claiming victory before the smoke has cleared was just poor judgement.