President Trump’s cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase has turbocharged the hawkish wing of the Republican Party, spearheaded by Sens. Like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Along with their fellow-travelers on the internationalist left, they’ve long clamored for military action in Syria, not just to impede Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but to send a message to other hostile countries. “When America doesn’t act,” goes their line, “our allies get nervous and our enemies are emboldened.”
This time around, however, it’s military action that’s emboldened America’s adversaries. The world is a more dangerous place because of Trump’s missile strike, and it doesn’t seem likely to get safer anytime soon.
Start with Russia, ally of the Assad government, whose troops were present at the airfield we bombed—though they were given warning in advance. Relations with Moscow, which Trump initially pledged to enhance in pursuit of our mutual interest in fighting Islamic radicalism, have now plunged to their lowest point since the Cold War. For evidence, look no further than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s stilted press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last Wednesday, during which both men appeared to have seen a ghost. “There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson acknowledged. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
That palpable tension might have been worth it if Putin was at all altering his behavior in Syria, but he is not. Moscow still stands unflinchingly behind Assad. Russia last week vetoed a UN resolution condemning a chemical attack by the regime. And mere days after Trump’s airfield strike Russian jets reportedly dropped incendiary thermite ordnance onto a town in northwestern Syria. “They’re just posturing!” assure the experts. “Russia stands alone!” But the point is that Russia can stand alone in Syria because it’s better entrenched there than any other country, with S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems, thousands of troops, and an expanding naval base at Tartus. A few dozen Tomahawk missiles weren’t going to change that.
Iran, meanwhile, has been busy bolstering its alliances with Russia and Assad and announcing jointly with Moscow that the United States has crossed a “red line.” Deep in the thicket of Iranian politics, an old foe has resurfaced. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the poisonously anti-American fundamentalist, announced last week that he’s running for Iran’s presidency again, and the timing of his debut—mere days after the airbase incident—is indicative. With Iran fuming over the attack on Assad, hatred of America is settling even deeper into Iranian politics. Ahmadinejad and the other Iranian hardliners are likely to be among the biggest beneficiaries of Trump’s Syria policy.
Still, Sen. Marco Rubio sees an upside here: “I do believe it sent a message to North Korea,” he said of the missile strike. That would be news to the North Koreans, whom satellite images show are defiantly preparing another nuclear test and who recently threatened to start a “thermonuclear war” against the United States. This triggered an unprecedented denouncement of Pyongyang from Chinese state media—credit to Trump for applying pressure on Beijing there, but nonetheless North Korea appears as pugnacious as ever, and even more dangerous.
Trump—who won both conservative voters and the traditionally Democratic white working class in last year’s election by forswearing further overseas adventures in favor of nation-building at home—has now immersed himself in an even larger geopolitical conflagration than his predecessor faced for which the Syria strike acted as kerosene. How did this happen? As the foreign policy scholar Micah Zenko has demonstrated, limited military action is almost never effective at achieving political change. Just as Americans would respond to an attack on our interests by swelling with patriotism and answering the call, so, too, do other governments tend to double down in the face of external aggression rather than becoming more pliable.
The Iraq war stands as a classic example of this. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein, North Korea announced and accelerated its nuclear program, Iran extended its tendrils into Iraq and coordinated with militants there to attack American troops, Syria allowed safe harbor for Iraqi extremists, and Libya almost backed out of a disarmament deal with the West.
These dictatorships weren’t cowed by massive application of American military power—they were emboldened.
The real victors out of the post-Saddam fray were Sunni extremists, who used newly anarchic Iraq to incubate the most radical terrorist group in history, al-Qaeda in Iraq, today known as the Islamic State. Likewise, among the loudest huzzahs after President Trump’s airbase attack came from Syrian Islamist groups like Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, the very characters that candidate Trump promised to fight.
This is not the change conservatives demanded and Trump promised. How many more times must the same lessons be learned before we rethink our foreign policy?