Trump, Syria, and the messy middle

How Trump's ideological void could help America in Syria

A tomahawk land attack missile is launched from the Mediterranean Sea.
(Image credit: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP)

On Thursday night, America attacked an airfield in Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles. The merits of the strike — a response to a deadly chemical weapons attack allegedly perpetrated against civilians by Syria's embattled boss Bashar al-Assad — are very much in the eye of the beholder. There is more than enough strategic ambiguity to go around.

You can plausibly claim the strike was a targeted and just reprisal for inhumane chemical warfare. Or a capitulation to the neoliberals scheming for the upper hand in the White House. Or a warning shot to the Russians and Syria — or maybe even North Korea? Heck, you could even plausibly argue the show of force was designed to impress China's Xi Jinping, who is visiting President Trump in Florida. Our president is a showman, after all, even, one assumes, when lives are at stake.

But let's cut through these competing claims and confront the uncomfortable issue of how to think post-ideologically about our foreign policy strategy.

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In President Trump's America, ideological lines are scrambled enough that there is no party line on Syria. Many Democrats — from Nancy Pelosi to Chuck Schumer — approve of the strike. So do hawkish Republicans in the John McCain mold. But just as many liberals and conservatives (from Tim Kaine to Justin Amash) are against it.

No argument about what to do or not do in Syria is particularly unpersuasive, but none is particularly captivating either. President Obama left behind a superficially contained mess that sent larger shock waves (and waves of migration) well beyond Syria's borders. His incoherent policy may have saddled his successor with only ad hoc approaches to an endgame that squares with American interests.

Nevertheless, America's enduring global interests do amount to a strategic goal put to the test in Syria. It's obvious that war with a major world power runs squarely counter to U.S. interests. It's also plain that U.S. interests demand closing out our draining, festering wars across the greater Middle East, as favorably as conditions permit. The Trump administration's intervention in Syria, which includes a limited ground force, could risk direct conflict with Russia. It could lead to another protracted and fruitless exercise in would-be nation-building and would-be peacekeeping. But it could also give the U.S. just enough skin in the game of the Syria horror to confer an adequate amount of strategic leverage over the range of outcomes there.

Does the administration recognize this? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have spoken with strategic ambiguity about the future of the Assad regime, underscoring that Assad's shelf life in Damascus is relatively less important to the U.S. than working more or less effectively with Russia to close out the conflict in a stable and amenable way. The best way to reach this outcome is through an internationally recognized unity government-in-waiting, a national congress that would include representatives of each significant political faction in Syria, including Alawites and the Assad regime's military. Unfortunately, at a critical moment during the previous administration, Russia worked against the debut and recognition of just such a body. But, in another misfortune, the U.S. was too officially disengaged from the struggle in Syria to forestall that breakdown. Now, with a larger but still modest military footprint, the White House has a stronger hand to play at the table.

Nevertheless, that stronger hand is still weaker than most Americans are likely to be comfortable with. We are tired of being the underdog superpower, which is why opinion on Syria tends to polarize toward complete non-involvement at one end and full-dress intervention on the other. Many have simply lost faith in the workability, much less the wisdom, of the messy middle. But it is there that great powers effectively settle international disputes and close out costly conflicts.

Although this is the kind of strategic practice that best accords with America's most general interest abroad, it diverges from most of the particular passions ruling America's fractured schools of thought. In that sense, the Trump administration's conspicuous lack of ideological purity may be of more consequential value than it appears.

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