“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” then-President Obama said last year, defending his decision not to strike Syria unilaterally in 2013. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
By impulsively ordering a military strike against a Syrian air base, President Trump both followed the playbook and fell into the trap. To be clear, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians was a heinous crime, though no more so than his prison abuses and barrel bombings, in which tens of thousands have been killed. Almost six years of civil war in Syria have led to nearly half a million dead and millions more displaced, a humanitarian crisis worsened by the Trump administration’s cruel and senseless attempts to ban Syrian refugees. The human suffering has been horrific to watch. Yet despite the fervor of the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, it’s folly to think that Trump’s military action will help end the carnage.
It is a testament to the absurdity of the “Washington playbook” that one of the most irresponsible acts of Trump’s madhouse presidency has also been one of the most widely applauded. Suddenly, much of the same media and political establishment that has routinely portrayed Trump as an inept and unstable authoritarian is ecstatic now that he’s bombed the Assad regime. The attack also earned Trump rare bipartisan praise in Congress.
After railing against the foreign-policy establishment as a candidate, Trump has made it clear that his non-interventionist rhetoric, like his supposed economic populism, was a farce. Soon after entering the Oval Office, he relaxed the rules of engagement for the people he calls “my generals,” giving local commanders much more authority to conduct raids and bomb hostile forces. This has led to a vast increase in US drone and other air strikes across the Middle East, with a correspondingly large increase in civilian casualties. In March alone, according to Airwars, more than 1,400 civilians were killed by US bombings in Syria and Iraq, far more than in Assad’s apparent chemical attack. And in a break with the Obama administration’s policy, Trump has also stopped giving public notice of increased troop deployments in the battle against ISIS.
Nor has Trump’s war fever been restricted to the Middle East. Soon after the cruise-missile attack on Syria, his generals dropped the 21,000-pound MOAB (the Massive Ordnance Air Blast, or “Mother of All Bombs”) on an ISIS compound in Afghanistan. It was the first combat use of this weapon, the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb. And Trump has extended his irresponsible saber rattling to the Korean Peninsula, perhaps the most dangerous theater of confrontation on the planet, by threatening to “solve the problem” posed by North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities if China doesn’t. Indeed, both the missile attack on Syria and dropping the MOAB in Afghanistan may have been intended as a warning to North Korea. The White House declared that it was sending a flotilla of Navy ships to Korean waters for the same reason.
The primary consequence of Trump’s muscle-flexing in Syria has been to dramatically increase tensions with Assad’s most important ally, Russia. Defying the charge that he is “Putin’s puppet” has conveniently quieted Trump’s domestic critics and distracted from the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s alleged ties with Moscow, but it has also brought the United States much closer to a dangerous confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia. And the threats against North Korea have only elicited hair-raising counterthreats from Pyongyang and the resentment of South Koreans, who know that war on the peninsula would be catastrophic.
Trump’s multiple military escalations have also worsened one of his most troubling conflicts at home: his ongoing battle with the US Constitution. By ordering the cruise-missile attack on Syria without seeking congressional authorization, as the Constitution requires and as Trump himself once demanded of Obama, the president has violated existing law, according to many legal experts. Congress has not authorized the use of force against the Assad government, and both the attack on Syria and the unprecedented use of the MOAB in Afghanistan are unwarranted and dangerous extensions of executive power. The war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year, and the multifront war against ISIS require the advice and consent of Congress, which should pass Representative Barbara Lee’s bill to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed in the wake of 9/11.
Rather than agitate for more US military action in Syria, we should call on the administration to join Russia and the UN special envoy in a diplomatic effort to end the conflict there once and for all. We should also demand that Trump act on China’s good advice and restart talks with North Korea. And for those who recognize that Trump cannot bomb his way to peace, it is time to revive and mobilize the antiwar movement to keep the United States from getting entangled more deeply in Syria—or in a war with North Korea that could kill millions.