Friday 15 November 2019

Trump's critics loathe to admit a shot across Assad and Putin's bow was right

US President Donald Trump announcing the missile strikes on Syria last week. Photo: Alex BrandonAP
US President Donald Trump announcing the missile strikes on Syria last week. Photo: Alex BrandonAP
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Or, in Donald Trump's case, just damned.

Was last week's Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airfield the moment when Mr Trump became a viable president? Or was it the moment when he finally proved his myriad detractors correct - that he is a dangerously unhinged, overly emotional amateur who will shape his entire foreign policy on the basis of some emotive pictures of suffering children?

Of one thing we can be sure - Thursday's attack blindsided his domestic detractors nearly as much as the Russians, who were given an hour's notice to get out of Dodge, the Dodge in this case being the infamous Shayrat air base, from where the most recent Syrian air force chemical attacks were flown.

As military moves go, it was a statement of intent rather than an all-out assault; a literal shot across the bow for both Mr Putin and Mr Assad and a clear statement to the world that the Americans won't stand idly by while gas is deployed with impunity against unarmed civilians.

This was exactly the course of action promised by Barack Obama with his infamous 'red line' gambit against Mr Assad. He warned the Syrian leader in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons would result in immediate punitive military action by America.

Mr Assad promptly used chemical weapons and Mr Obama promptly did nothing, damning America in the eyes of a region where failing to make good on a threat is a sign of terminal weakness - something which the new power in the region, Russia, could never be accused of. History won't be kind to Mr Obama, not least because of his subsequent, mealy-mouthed clarification that: "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line when governments representing 98pc of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding them."

It was a classic example of Mr Obama's professorial aloofness, an accusation which could never be levelled at Mr Trump.

The strike proved certain things while also raising some interesting questions closer to home.

For starters, it seems that all the talk of Mr Trump being a puppet for Mr Putin who, we are meant to believe, orchestrated the election in his favour, has been rather wide of the mark. Aside from the fact that the Russians didn't stop Hillary Clinton going to Wisconsin in the final days of the campaign, which would probably have sealed her victory, the Tomahawk attack has been an embarrassment to the Russian leader and a sign that, unlike his predecessor, Mr Trump is prepared to send a message.

Even more than that, it has been grimly amusing to watch the mental gymnastics performed by anti-Trump commentators, the same people who would have cheered Mr Obama for doing the very same thing. 'He should have waited for UN approval,' has been the canard most frequently trotted out. That's fine, except for a variety of reasons. Not least is the fact Mr Trump despises the UN, as his nomination of Nikki Haley as ambassador has reminded us.

Also, with China and Russia permanent members of the Security Council with power of veto, no approval for such an action would ever have been forthcoming.

Then there was the rather bizarre argument trotted out by one of the 'Guardian' columnists who seemed to think that because Mr Trump attacked a Syrian air force base, he now has some sort of moral obligation to open his doors to Syrian refugees. That manages to be both irrational and ignorant of international law and history.

The other most common response, one issued trough gritted teeth, is that he did the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. That is a tacit admission that no matter what Mr Trump does, some people will never be happy. To say the Trump administration has endured teething problems since his ascension to power is an understatement. It is also true that no American president has ever shied away from a surgical foreign strike to help bolster domestic opinion. After all, Bill Clinton did exactly that with a cruise missile attack in Sudan and Afghanistan during the Lewinsky scandal in 1998. The difference is that Mr Trump was reflecting a global sense of outrage at the sight of sarin being used on children. Even in a war which seems to have no limits on its depravity, such an act is seen as beyond the pale, which is why the hostility of the response towards Mr Trump is more reflexive than analytical.

Here we have a situation where an American president sent a clear message to Mr Putin and his client Mr Assad that further use of chemical agents would attract a swift and comprehensive response. That the 59 Tomahawks didn't cause more damage or loss of life is in itself making a point - this was only a yellow card. The next one will be red.

Much of Mr Trump's legacy will stand or fall on the number of American soldiers killed in foreign wars. If he can maintain such gunboat diplomacy - the fact the Chinese premier was having dinner with Mr Trump at the time of the strike is hardly coincidental, after all - and not waste American lives, there may yet be an interesting upswing in popularity for the embattled POTUS.

In the meantime, however, his critics should ask themselves one simple question - if using nerve gas on children isn't enough to warrant a surgical strike, what is?

Irish Independent

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