According to multiple media reports, Donald Trump was motivated by a number of factors in his decision to strike a Syrian base in response to an Assad-sanctioned attack on Syrian citizens with chemical weapons. But among the leading motivations, the two greatest were pictures of the children and a desire not to look weak in the eyes of our allies and other world leaders. Trump famously belittled President Obama on the campaign trail for not responding to earlier heinous war crimes perpetrated by the Assad regime and as president continues to worry about being perceived as strong and decisive.
It’s not entirely clear, however, if sympathy and a desire to look strong are the best drivers of a decision that could have far reaching foreign policy implications. In fact, the final outcomes of our policy with regard to Syria do not seem to be clear at all. And if our goals and outcomes are not clear, how do we know if this strike was the right move?
Removing Assad from power might seem like a reasonable and agreeable outcome for the U.S. However, if we’ve learned nothing from our experiences in Iraq and Libya we know that removing highly objectionable and brutal dictators often creates a further unraveling of the country in question that can easily lead to an environment where terrorist organizations can gain strength.
President Trump’s “America First” policy (or slogan) seems to indicate that he is unwilling to engage in the kinds of nation-building that can help constructively fill the vacuum a deposed dictator leaves when he is ousted. Punishing and removing Assad would be relatively easy; helping build a positive society would be the hard part.
If “looking strong” is more important than long term goals for peace in the region, then we’re going about this the wrong way.