Yesterday’s events showed two sides of 21st-century conflict. America’s Tomahawk strike against a Syrian air base unleashed the full force of a superpower against a rogue state. It was a proportionate use of military hardware in defence of humanitarian principle. By contrast, the terror attack in Stockholm was crude and barbaric. This was the use of force to intimidate an innocent population. One man who has shown he will not be intimidated, however, is Donald Trump. There has been a shift in temperament in US foreign policy in the last week. It will have consequences for the whole world.
Everybody knows that the UN lacks teeth; the US and its allies remain the pre-eminent force for decency in the world.
President Trump campaigned as a non-interventionist but has been quietly governing in the opposite direction. Commanders enjoy greater discretion on the battlefield than they did under Barack Obama. Almost one drone strike has been ordered every day, five times the rate of President Trump’s predecessor, most of them aimed at targets in Yemen where the Saudis have US backing in their war against the Houthis.
This more aggressive approach is now being applied to global diplomacy. President Trump began the week by warning that if the Chinese will not cut the rogue state of North Korea down to size, he might do it for them. Then Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people. Mr Obama had famously set red lines in Syria only to run away when they were crossed. President Trump let it be known that he was different. China’s President Xi Jinping had actually come to visit President Trump when US missiles struck Assad’s air base – and what message can the Asian leader have taken from the attack other than “America means business”? To paraphrase Clausewitz, war is diplomacy by other means.
But what exactly are Assad and his Russian sponsors supposed to read into this? The strike ordered by President Trump was not intended to stop them winning the Syrian civil war. They were warned the missiles were coming, giving them plenty of opportunity to evacuate, and after the attack, Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, asserted that wider US policy in Syria has not changed. It could be inferred that Assad has the green light to win the civil war so long as he does so by methods that are morally acceptable to the West. The missile strike was not an act of war, it was a show of force.
For some hawks, this won’t be good enough. For the very dovish, it is already too much. Jeremy Corbyn said that any attack was wrong without UN backing – the predictable lament of someone who prefers it when the West sits on its hands. Everybody knows that the UN lacks teeth; the US and its allies remain the pre-eminent force for decency in the world.
None the less, the US taking unilateral action does entail risk. What if Assad uses chemical weapons again? Will the White House authorise another, perhaps larger action? If the logical step is the imposition of a no-fly zone, what happens if, or when, the Russians enter it? None of these troubles might come to pass – hopefully they won’t – but the point stands that the moment America deals itself into the Syrian game, it does so on the opposite side to Vladimir Putin. If Mr Putin’s axis wins the civil war and Assad stays in place, does that mean that America has been strategically humiliated?
Not necessarily: it depends on what President Trump’s goals are. At present it looks like he is neither a George W Bush, who favoured regime changes, nor a Barack Obama, who preferred oratory to action, but instead a president who wants to pursue US strategic interests at arm’s length, via strikes, while retaining the right to slap down a dictator who goes too far, as in the case of Assad.
This might tell the big power players – China and Russia – that they are dealing with a serious man who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But of course, atrocities in the 21st century are often carried out not by nation states but by terror cells that are much harder to control with the traditional levers of power. President Trump once warned that Sweden faces an internal threat, and he has, in a horrible sense, been vindicated. The world now looks to him for decisive, tough leadership in a fight that is often dirty, always complicated and rarely conclusive.