Friday, 7 April 2017

Europe's misplaced relief after Trump's Syria strikes

Does Trump's military strike in Syria signal that the American military protectorate over Europe is back? 

Last night at a mixer of policy wonks here in Berlin, I could feel the relief in the air.

The details were still emerging, but we knew at that point that President Trump was launching airstrikes against Bassar Al Assad's forces in Syria in retaliation for a brutal chemical weapons attack against his own people.

"It took some time but he's finally becoming serious," one Berliner told me. "He can say all he wants on the campaign trail but now that he's president he has to live up to American responsibilities."
The comments were echoed this morning by the governments of Germany, France and the UK. Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Francois Hollande said in a joint statement that the attack was understandable and that Assad carries "sole responsibility for this development". The UK went further and endorsed the strike as an "appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime." EU Council President Donald Tusk said the strikes show "needed resolve".
These leaders will have been all the more convinced of the rightness of their support for the attacks by seeing who is opposing them. French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen told France-2 television that interventions in Iraq and Libya stirred up Islamic terrorism. Perhaps seeing that her close affinity with Trump is causing her poll numbers to go down in France, she went for the jugular and called him a hypocrite. "He said the US would not be the world's policeman, but that's exactly what he did yesterday," she said. 

Some are sighing with relief as everything seems to be going back to normal. The strikes come after the news that the far-right media mogul Steve Bannon has been removed from the National Security Council, and the military and intelligence chiefs reinstated. The worrying prospect of a division between Trump and the US military and intelligence leadership is fading.

'Stay out of Europe'

The welcoming response from Europe's mainstream politicians is less about the Syrians and more about the Europeans themselves. Since the shock news of Trump's election, European politicians have been terrified about the prospect of a US withdrawal from the world and an end to the NATO military protectorate over Europe.

Trump's sudden about-face on the subject of Syria suggests to many Europeans that he is changing his stance on the role of Europe in the world. After all, three years ago when Obama proposed attacks on Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons (a proposal that was rejected by the Republican congress), Trump was emphatically against intervention. He tweeted, dozens of times, that the US should "stay out of Syria". If he has apparently changed his mind about this, perhaps he has also changed his mind about whether the US should 'stay out of Europe' should Russia invade.
Wag the dog

But for Europeans to feel comfort over this strike is folly. They have much more to do with Trump's domestic political struggles than they do with a changed worldview over American military intervention.

From what we've seen so far, these strikes are only for show and achieve no actual military objective - something the Trump administration freely admits. The missiles targeted only one Syrian airfield, not Syria’s air defenses. The Russians, who are fighting alongside the Syrian government, were alerted of the attack beforehand and probably alerted the Syrians themselves. The strikes, we're told, are just to "send a message".

Addressing the American people last night, Trump said he was motivated by seeing the images of suffering children after the chemical weapons attack. Recall, however, that these are the same children he has banned from coming to the United States as refugees. 

It is far more likely that what was eating away at him yesterday was his sinking poll numbers, and the chaos that has subsumed his administration in recent weeks. The inquiry into Russian involvement in the 2016 US election has shown that at the least, Trump was played for an unwitting fool by Moscow and at the most, Trump and/or his team are witting agents of Russia. His embarrassing defeat on repealing Obamacare has shown that his promise that "only I can fix it" cannot be delivered. Confidence over his ability to govern has been shattered even by some elements of his own party, as exemplified by Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan's last week.

Trump needed not just a distraction. He needed a distraction that would at the same time reassure the powerful, both domestic and abroad, that his presidency is still viable. The Syria opportunity presents both: an action that will make him look resolute to his supporters and more dependable to his conservative critics and international allies.

Republicans will also be hoping that the attack, viscerally opposed by Russia, will put the allegations of Russian puppetry to rest. The revelations of the investigation so far have shown without doubt that the American president was a gullible tool of Russian manipulation. Trump has chosen to hit back with missiles.

For two decades now there has been a tradition in American politics, almost a knee-jerk reaction, to accuse presidents of "wagging the dog" when they launch strikes of this nature. It references a 1997 black comedy film in which a president hires a spin doctor to construct a fake war in Albania in order to distract the public from a sex scandal. Just two years later Bill Clinton was accused of doing just that when he launched strikes in the Balkans during the Monica Lewinsky crisis.

Similar accusations were made whenever George W Bush or Barack Obama would launch strikes. Many of these accusations were frivolous. But this time the circumstances cry out for a Wag the Dog reference.

What does it mean?

That being said, it is clear that the brutality of the attack required some kind of US response. That Trump decided to heed the advice of his generals this time, in a context in which doing so would offer him domestic political benefit, should surprise no one.

This is particularly true given that Trump has been secretly building up troop presence in Syria for months, as revealed by Senator Chris Murphy last month. The number of US forces in northern Syria has doubled in the past month - 400 marines and army rangers joined the 500 US special operations forces deployed by Obama. The US was already getting more involved in Syria, a push much more likely driven by the military than by Trump.

Indeed, it appears that Trump is giving the US generals more and more of a free hand to act. He has given them permission to launch drone strikes without consulting him - a situation unprecedented in American history. He has also agreed to a proposal from Defense Secretary James Mattis making large parts of Yemen active areas of hostilities. All of this has enabled 70 airstrikes to be carried out in Yemen since Trump took office, nearly double the number the Obama administration conducted in all of 2016.

All of this paints a picture not of a man who has changed his world ideology, but one who has ceded foreign policy decisions to the generals. This week's dramatic decision to attack the Syrian government seems to be one driven by the generals that happens to align with Trump's political desires.

But how will his base of supporters react? This is only the latest of a series of broken promises since he was elected, most notably the failure to repeal Obamacare. During the campaign he promised to pull the US out of global conflicts and not to drag the US into new wars in the Middle East. Last night he very visibly did the opposite of that. How will his supporters react?

All is very unclear at the moment, and what remains unclear is whether there will be more attacks or whether this was just a "symbolic response". What is also unclear is why the Assad regime, advised by Russia would make such a brazen attack when they knew this would be the very likely response by Trump.

What is clear is that European leaders should temper their sense of relief over what happened last night. It does not necessarily point to a change in world view. What it points to is an erratic presidency, where impulsive decisions like last night's can lead to global chaos very quickly.

The only thing certain today is that we remain in a world crippled by an erratic American government.

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