The cruise-missile attack launched by US destroyers against an air base in western Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack by Syrian government forces has been widely described in the media as the first major use of military force by Donald Trump since assuming the presidency. The attack, involving 59 Tomahawk missiles, was certainly a significant use of force, causing extensive (if not calamitous) damage to the Syrian base. But it really should be viewed as the second such action by Trump, following an ill-fated raid by US Special Forces in Yemen on January 29. Even more importantly, it should be seen as the prelude to further exercises of military might—each likely to prove more risky and ferocious than the one before.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump made it clear that he was perfectly comfortable with the notion of using military force to advance US interests abroad, despite chiding President Obama and Hillary Clinton (in her role as secretary of state) for involving the United States in protracted Middle Eastern conflicts. Last September, when asked how he would respond to a recent incident in which Iranian naval craft veered dangerously close to American ships in the Persian Gulf, he told reporters, “With Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats, and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.”
In the few months since he has occupied the White House, moreover, Trump has demonstrated ever-increasing comfort with the use of force, giving his top military officials—“my generals,” as he likes to call them—greater leeway to plan and conduct military actions in active war zones, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
This was first evident in late January, when he approved the nighttime raid on a compound in central Yemen thought to house militants of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Although planning for the raid had begun during the final weeks of the Obama administration, it was Trump—in a meeting attended by his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis, and then–National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn—who gave the go-ahead for this mission. Whether due to bungled planning or inadequate White House oversight (or some combination of both), the raid ended in disaster, with a US Navy Seal, Chief Petty Officer William Owens, and more than two dozen civilians (including several children) killed.
Despite this fiasco, Trump has stepped up the delegation of decision-making authority to senior military officers, making it easier for them to initiate combat operations in a half-dozen countries. In Yemen, for example, the president has granted a Pentagon request to designate parts of three provinces as an “area of active hostilities,” giving local commanders the authority to conduct raids and drone attacks against suspected militants without consulting top White House officials. In the weeks following the botched raid in which Owens was killed, the United States launched over 70 drone attacks on Yemen—far more than the total authorized by Obama throughout all of 2016.