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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

Doug Saunders

When presidents attack: The limits of missile strikes Add to ...

It is today’s version of gunboat diplomacy: A sudden, one-off, unannounced remote missile strike by the United States against a specific international figure in response to an atrocity.

Ronald Reagan did it in 1986, when he bombed Moammar Gadhafi’s headquarters in Tripoli and Benghazi after the Libyan dictator’s agents bombed a Beirut nightclub packed with U.S. soldiers. Bill Clinton did it in 1998, when he launched cruise missile strikes against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the al-Qaeda leader’s attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Read also: Syria strike: Geopolitical victory or a slide into a war Americans didn’t ask for?

And now Donald Trump has joined that list, by firing about 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles into the airbases of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in response to shocking chemical-weapons attacks.

There is no reason to believe Mr. Trump’s sudden strike will prove different from those other two, in outcome or rationale.

It will not eliminate Mr. al-Assad’s leadership. It will probably not be followed by the sort of sustained air and infantry campaign and occupation that might provoke a regime change. It will raise tensions with other major powers operating in the region – in this case Russia. And it may make the larger ongoing military campaign – this one against the Islamic State – last even longer.

And like those others, its value is partially humanitarian and international (nobody wants to see a chemical-weapons atrocity go unpunished), but largely political and domestic.

The strike had profound political value for Mr. Trump. It allowed him to portray himself as tough and decisive, after weeks of indecision and ambiguity. It allowed him to claim that he had gone where Barack Obama had dared not, by enforcing the chemical-weapons “red line” Mr. Obama had imposed, then declined to act fully upon.

It will help Mr. Trump appear less acquiescent to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a moment when the U.S. President’s team is under investigation for alleged Russian support during the election. And it will infuriate the nationalist, isolationist and self-proclaimed anti-globalist branches of his movement – including his adviser Steve Bannon and libertarian-minded Congress members such as Rand Paul. By distancing himself from these hard-right nationalists, Mr. Trump might regain wavering support from the more moderate majority of Republicans.

The Reagan and Clinton strikes were intended to neutralize and intimidate U.S. foes and ideally remove the need for more elaborate military action that would require the co-operation of other countries with complex involvements in those regions. In both cases, they failed on anything but symbolic grounds, causing those foes to dig in deeper, redouble their repression and amplify their terrorist attacks – and make defeat more difficult (both Mr. Gadhafi and Mr. bin Laden met their demise in 2011, ironically just as Mr. al-Assad’s war against his people was beginning).

Mr. Trump’s airstrike could theoretically force Mr. al-Assad to the negotiating table, but it’s far more likely that it will make the conflict more complex and difficult – especially if Russia redoubles its support for Mr. al-Assad and reduces its co-operation with the United States in the war against the Islamic State.

“I had two big fears about striking the Assad regime,” writes Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army officer who was one of the U.S. negotiators who struck a co-operation deal with Russia after Mr. Obama decided not to launch strikes against Mr. al-Assad. “The first was that we might inadvertently kill some Russians,” and trigger a wider international showdown. “My second fear was that this would greatly complicate the fight against the Islamic State.”

Certainly, a rise in Russian-American tensions will make the fight against the Islamic State somewhat more difficult. On the other hand, such complexities have bedevilled that campaign all along, and they’ve involved not just the United States and Russia, but also Kurdish militias, the Turkish military, and various competing factions of Syrian rebels.

The deeper reason why the fight against the Islamic State has been difficult is one hinted at, but not solved, by Thursday’s strike: As long as Mr. al-Assad attempts to remain in power, there will not be a coherent and legitimate Syrian state controlling its eastern territory, and therefore Syria will remain vulnerable to control by extremist movements, including the Islamic State.

A single airstrike will not solve that problem. Its solution would likely require both co-ordinated threats and complex negotiations – and not just missiles launched from aircraft carriers.

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