By launching cruise missile strikes on government forces in Syria, successfully obliterating dozens of ISIS terrorists in Afghanistan, and dispatching a military flotilla to confront the North Korean regime, the Trump administration has sent four strong messages: to dictators, allies, Russia, and Western populists. Trump’s moves overturn several years of fruitless diplomacy and empty threats by the Obama administration and appear to be working.
Although the cruise military strike in Syria only involved one airfield, it was swift and decisive, thereby demonstrating to dictators such as Bashar al-Assad that the new White House values hard deeds above tough words. White House action was in stark contrast with the previous administration, which warned of consequences for war crimes and the use of prohibited chemical weapons but did not deliver any punishment and lost international credibility as a result.
Effective diplomacy must be backed by the willingness to use force to convince a belligerent opponent. The question is whether there will be any follow up by Trump if the Syrian government continues to bomb civilian targets. Indeed, some in the US administration are pushing for “regime change” in Syria, as Assad is unwilling to negotiate with rebels to allow for a political transition. If he refuses to relinquish power the stage seems set for further confrontation with Washington.
America’s Syria bombing also sends a clearer message to America’s allies, not just in the Middle East and East Asia, but also in Central and Eastern Europe. If Washington is willing to actively defend civilians in Syria, then it will surely not sit on its hands if civilians are threatened in any front line NATO state, even if the aggressor is Russia. During the Obama administration, several US allies remained concerned that Washington was unwilling to use force and would baulk at applying NATO’s article five for mutual self-defense.
When Trump was elected fears of US weakness and withdrawal were heightened, as the new White House had been stressing its isolationist nationalism and non-intervention abroad. In stark contrast, a more vigorous Trump foreign policy is likely to elicit support among allies and a greater responsiveness to future US requests for military assistance.
Trump’s message to Russia is unmistakable. Several members of the Trump cabinet have spelled out their disgust with Moscow’s involvement in war crimes in Syria, its neglect of international treaties in the use of chemical weapons, and its collaboration with a rogue regime that systematically murders its own civilians.
At the same time, the White House gave the Kremlin an enticement to cooperate with the US in replacing Assad and building a durable ceasefire in Syria. President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to welcome such an offer, as it would mean abandoning Assad – his most trusted ally in the region. Moreover, if Moscow backs away from Assad, Russia’s credibility will plummet throughout the Middle East as an unreliable partner that buckles under pressure from the US and whose air defense systems appear helpless against American technology. However, Washington has an opportunity to build a broader coalition against Moscow’s Syrian adventure. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN has signaled a hardening of Washington’s attitude toward Russia with the threat of more onerous future sanctions.
There is an additional bonus for Trump in being tough with Moscow, as it serves to dispel suspicions that he colluded with the Kremlin during the presidential election campaign. The notion that Putin helped Trump win the elections in return for lifting financial sanctions on Moscow has preoccupied Washington since Trump’s inauguration. The best outcome for the President from the ongoing FBI and congressional investigations would be evidence that Russia sought to destabilize America’s democracy but without directly helping him win the election.
Regardless of the outcome of official probes, the more Trump challenges Moscow the less will he be viewed as a potential puppet who has been bribed or blackmailed by Russian intelligence services. A recent statement by the US National Security Advisor, General H. R. McMaster underscored that the time had come for “tough talks” with Russia not only over its support for Syria’s government but also for its “subversive actions in Europe.”
Quite possibly, in retaliation for Russia’s humiliation in the Middle East and Trump’s harder policy toward North Korea, the Kremlin may decide to release hacked Republican Emails and other materials from the Trump campaign. The objective would be either to discredit him personally or to confirm the supposition that he collaborated with the Kremlin. Moscow would welcome an impeachment process in order to paralyze the US administration and pursue its international adventures.
Through his hard foreign policy involvement Trump has also sent a strong message to populists and nationalists in the US and Europe – many of whom supported his candidacy. Contrary to their irresponsible non-interventionist mantra, Trump has demonstrated that he will not abandon America’s global leadership and that the US still possesses both interests and values that it will defend internationally. The rejection of populism will certainly move Trump closer to the Republican mainstream and even endear him to many centrist Democrats on the international arena. It will also make him a more effective president.