WASHINGTON – “Mission accomplished.” It’s a phrase presidents and politicians have studiously avoided since President George W. Bush’s ill-fated aircraft carrier visit prematurely declaring success in the Iraq war.
But that was President Donald Trump’s declaration of success the morning after a strike against chemical weapons facilities in Syria.
Aside from the curious choice of words, it raised the essential question regarding Syria going beyond the one-time strike: What exactly is the mission?
For most of Trump’s presidency, it has been to defeat ISIS and then get out. But what Trump outlined in his televised speech to the nation Friday night was something more complicated. He promised a sustained campaign to stop Syria’s government from again using chemical weapons on its own people, while also emphasizing the limits of the United States’ ability or willingness to do more to solve the bloodletting that has devastated that country for seven years.
Trump finds himself in a position not all that different from that of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, and with no easier answers. The strike brought home Trump’s competing impulses when it comes to Syria — on the one hand, his manful chest-thumping intended to demonstrate that he is the toughest one on the international block, and on the other, his deep conviction that U.S. involvement in the Middle East since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been a waste of blood and treasure.
He did little to reconcile those impulses with his retaliatory strike to punish the government of President Bashar Assad for a suspected chemical attack a week ago that killed dozens of people. But then again, he reflected the contradictions of a U.S. public that is tired of trying to solve other people’s problems in the Middle East yet recoils at the haunting images of dead children choked by gas.
Many veterans of Washington policymaking in the Middle East offered conditional praise for Trump’s restrained approach to the strike, if not necessarily his rhetoric. In hitting three sites associated with Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities, limiting it to a single night and conducting it in conjunction with Britain and France, they said it sent a message while avoiding a deeper involvement and minimizing the risk of provoking Syria’s patrons, Russia and Iran, into retaliating themselves.
“However, I don’t think the strike clarifies U.S. policy,” said Meghan O’Sullivan, who oversaw the Iraq war as Bush’s deputy national security adviser. “In theory, there is not necessarily an inconsistency between a targeted, multilateral strike against chemical weapons sites and the withdrawal of troops that have been fighting ISIS. But the strike does really call into question the wisdom of pulling back American forces now in highlighting the question of what our objective really is in Syria.”
Others argued that the strike was a waste that accomplished little and, in the process, exceeded the president’s authority as commander in chief since he did not obtain authorization from Congress first. Critics said that if Trump was truly moved by humanitarian concern over the victims of last weekend’s attack, he should reverse his policy of banning virtually all Syrian refugees.
“The ongoing bloodshed and war crimes in Syria are a stark reminder that Syrian civilians need our support now more than ever,” Noah Gottschalk of Oxfam America said in a statement. “Yet the Trump administration still lacks a coherent strategy to actually bring an end to the conflict and instead has sought to slash humanitarian aid and slam the door on Syrian refugees.”
By most accounts, the strike essentially left in place the status quo on the ground. It did little if anything to weaken Assad beyond any chemical weapons stores it destroyed, leaving him to continue waging war on his own people through conventional means. It did nothing to exact the “big price” Trump promised to impose on Russia and Iran for enabling Assad’s chemical attacks.
Indeed, Trump has shown little interest in trying to steer Syria to a resolution of its civil war, eschewing the sort of Geneva diplomacy that consumed Obama’s last secretary of state, John Kerry, to little apparent effect.
Philip Gordon, who was Obama’s White House coordinator of Middle East policy, said one of the challenges for Trump was calibrating his language with his actions. In effect, Gordon said, the president seemed to be trying to find a reasoned middle ground in Syria that belies his own tough talk.
“You can make a case that we are trying to thread a needle that’s tough to thread, but the needle is to do enough to deter the regime from using chemical weapons but not so much that sucks us into the Syrian civil war and gets us into conflict with Iran and Russia,” he said.