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Ahmad and Douek

Invisible red lines: How Trump’s mixed signals risk global war Add to ...

Aisha Ahmad teaches international relations and international security at the University of Toronto. Daniel Douek lectures in political science at Concordia University and McGill University.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria is being hailed as a military and moral victory over the brutal Assad regime: Arizona Senator John McCain, who has strongly criticized Mr. Trump, encouraged him to escalate the bombing, and even Hillary Clinton praised the attack.

From a strategic perspective, however, Mr. Trump’s abrupt departure from his long-held non-interventionist policy toward the Middle East is incredibly risky. With Russian troops, jets and missiles and a large contingent of Iranian troops deployed in Syria, abruptly escalating U.S. attacks could easily trigger a wider war. To strike or not to strike is not the question. What matters is that the Americans have become dangerously unpredictable.

Everything we know about international relations teaches us that this type of unpredictability is the single greatest trigger of global war. The most dangerous thing about Mr. Trump is that neither his friends nor his enemies can make sense of his signals. Being unpredictable might help you win in the boxing ring, but in international relations, this is a losing strategy. Every time a superpower behaves erratically and sends mixed messages to the world, its rivals get confused, miscalculate their next moves, and overreach. The result is inevitably calamity.

In Syria, this problem began in 2012, when the Obama administration declared a “red line” to the Assad regime on chemical weapons. In August, 2013, President Bashar al-Assad launched a gas attack on his own population, ostensibly calling U.S. president Barack Obama’s bluff. Instead of entering the war, Mr. Obama made a surprise deal with President Vladimir Putin to force Mr. al-Assad to back down on chemical weapons and surrender a large portion of his stockpiles. At this stage, despite Mr. Obama’s wavering, both the Syrians and Russians accepted the American signal that chemical weapons were off the table.

These signals were then dramatically reversed under the new Trump administration. Throughout his campaign and the first months of his presidency, Mr. Trump repeatedly stated that the U.S. would not become embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Just two days prior to the gas attack, the Trump administration again reaffirmed, through its United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that it was not planning to intervene in Syria and that toppling Mr. al-Assad was not a U.S. priority. At no point did the Trump administration clearly signal a “red line” that the Assad regime was not to cross.

Believing that the Americans were stepping out of the fight, the Assad regime systematically intensified strikes on rebel-held targets, culminating in a new wave of deadly gas attacks. Then suddenly, as public horror over the atrocities mounted, Mr. Trump changed his mind, and ordered the missile strike of Syrian air bases within less than a day. Mr. Trump declared that Mr. al-Assad had not only crossed one “red line,” but “many, many lines.” It was another dramatic reversal.

Mr. Trump has long insisted that when deploying military force, it is unwise to reveal one’s plan before striking, lest the enemy be alerted: In a tweet from Aug. 29, 2013, he declared he “would not go into Syria, but if I did it would be by surprise and not blurted all over the media like fools.”

This is ridiculous because invisible red lines are useless. Military deterrence only works when rivals know in advance where the “red lines” are drawn. The strike was not a deterrence move. It was a spasmodic reaction.

There are people within the Trump administration who understand the risks of inadvertently setting off the Third World War. That’s why the strike was executed with long-range missiles fired from a distance, after the U.S. warned Russia of the impending strike, and then the Syrians evacuated their personnel from the area. Yet without question, this reversal has increased the likelihood that the war will spiral even further out of control.

The attack sent a sudden signal that the Americans might be back in the game, thus ensuring that the Russians and the Syrians will in turn ramp up their defensive positions. The air strikes might have temporarily restricted Mr. al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks, but these erratic signals now make escalation much more likely.

If the U.S. continues on this course of unpredictability, it will only be a matter of time before it hits a Russian target or gets its own troops killed. Meanwhile, serious challenges with China and North Korea loom ahead. Indeed, America’s enemies are watching. And what they see is an erratic president driven by bluster and impulsiveness, lacking the political acumen to navigate these complex conflicts.

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