Analysis

With Syria Attack, Trump Resets His Presidency - for Now

Swift retaliation boosts U.S. deterrence and president’s stature, but don’t forget unintended consequences and Trump’s personality

U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, April 3, 2017 and Syria's President Bashar Assad in a handout picture from Syria's national news agency, January 8, 2015.
Kevin Lamarque/ REUTERS and SANA/Handout via Reuters

Donald Trump has hit the reset button on his presidency. The Tomahawk cruise missile attack on the Shayrat airfield near the Syrian city of Homs recasts Trump overnight as a resolute and assertive president who wields American force for all the right reasons and who is undeterred by a possible confrontation with Vladimir Putin. It resuscitates U.S. deterrence in the Middle East, which was weakened, rightly or wrongly, under Barack Obama. In the coming few days, Trump will enjoy his first significant boost in U.S. public opinion. He will garner new support and confidence among American allies in Europe in the Middle East.

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But this is what happens, let’s not forget, at the start of any military campaign, in the hours before the law of unintended consequences goes into effect. If the U.S. missile attack remains a solitary shot in the dark, Trump will remain popular until people remember who he is. If it leads to a new American entanglement in the Middle East or to a far more dangerous collision with Russia, it won’t take long before the cheers turn into jeers. This is the way it often works, from the wildly popular Israeli declaration of a “48 hour war” against Lebanon in 1982 to the broadly supported announcement by George Bush in March 2003 that the U.S. “will accept no outcome but victory” in Iraq.

>> Read top analyses on U.S. strike in Syria: Trump challenges Putin, punishes Assad for first time | Russia, Iran, denounce strike, Saudi Arabia praises it | Trump's move could backfire | Trump's 48-hour policy turnaround <<

The attack gives Trump his first big success in portraying himself as the antithesis of Barack Obama. It strikes at the Achilles' heel of the former president, whose decision to refrain from retaliation against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s previous chemical attack in August 2013 near Damascus is considered by many to be his worst national security blunder. After Congress derailed Trump’s efforts to repeal and replace Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act, he has now found a way to sabotage his predecessor’s legacy as commander in chief who depends on no one.

The attack will also help allay suspicions that Trump is “Putin’s puppet,” as Hillary Clinton alleged during the recent election campaign. Even if it turns out that the confrontation with Moscow is a sham, and that both sides agreed in advance on a limited U.S. action that would be met by a harsh but mostly verbal Russian reply, Trump will still be seen as willing to confront his alleged handler in the Kremlin. The attack could take some of the wind out of the sails of the investigations of the alleged coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russians, at least until the emergence of a state witness or a smoking gun or a video tape that would confirm the dossier compiled by British investigator Christopher Steele and expose Trump’s alleged shenanigans in a Moscow hotel.

In the international arena, the attack in Syria will help elevate the low esteem in which Trump is held in Western capitals, most of which have endorsed retaliation against Assad for this week’s chemical attack on Idlib. The swift American reaction also gives Trump a psychological advantage over his guest in Florida, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in their talks on North Korea. It lends credibility to Trump’s warning that the U.S. will use military force if Pyongyang does not halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

In much of the Middle East, Trump will garner enthusiastic applause, from Israel as well as Sunni countries, not least of which because they would like to see the attack on the Syrian airbase as a preview of a far greater face-off between Washington and Tehran. Trump is moving in the right direction, officials in Jerusalem and Riyadh will say, now all he has to do is move a little bit to the east and multiply the missiles he’s willing to launch a hundred times over and more.

The American public is bound to rally round the flag, initially at least, but the reaction in Congress  will be more tempered. Democrats won’t easily forget their resentment of Trump or their lack of confidence in his leadership, never mind that many of them are opposed in principle to the use of force that could lead to a broader foreign embroilment. The Republicans will be warmer, though many of them will note that Trump’s action belies his past positions as well as his campaign promises to step away from military adventures in the Middle East. And the eternal struggle over the War Powers Act has already stirred up, with some lawmakers complaining that Trump did not seek congressional approval for his action and many others demanding that he do so if more attacks are needed.

All of this, of course, is before one looks at the myriad ways in which Trump’s move could go wrong, replacing today’s euphoria with tomorrow’s regret. Even if there was some form of earlier coordination between Washington and Moscow, the American attack on a Russian client state in which Russian forces are stationed is humiliating for Moscow, which usually doesn’t react well to such indignities. The Kremlin could very well retaliate with actions that could escalate the situation and even renew the specter of a cold war, if not direct clashes. But even if one does not dwell on such apocalyptic scenarios, what if Assad decides to launch another chemical attack against rebel strongholds, placing Trump in a bind between embarrassing inaction and dangerous escalation?

And even though the blow against Assad may be greeted warmly in Arab capitals, that is not necessarily the case with Arab and Muslim public opinion, which will view the U.S. attack as yet another case of Western aggression against Islam. The attack certainly enhances the motivation of groups such as Hezbollah, Al-Qaida and the Islamic State to take revenge on America and gain religious redemption and PR glory in the process. And if the attack somehow leads to a serious degradation of Assad’s power but a concurrent resurgence of ISIS, even Trump might start to wonder if it was such a good idea in the first place.

In the end, Trump hasn’t changed overnight. He didn’t wake up as a cross between Henry Kissinger and Douglas Macarthur. One solitary decision, which was crafted by his able military advisers, didn’t transform him from an impulsive and uninhibited politician to a cool and calculating statesman. On the contrary: his momentary success and instant popularity could instill an inflated sense of confidence in Trump for which America and the world could pay dearly. The difficult tests still lay ahead and one sterile attack on a Syrian base doesn’t change the fact that in this campaign, the U.S. is being led by a president who was and remains unfit for the task.