It seems that everyone from the political left, right and center has had to overreact to the events in Syria from last week, including my co-writer. When it comes to Trump, it seems awfully tempting to veer into wild hyperbole. So before I respond to Eric C, I want you, the reader, to answer this question: How many countries did President Obama drop bombs on (via plane, drone, cruise missile or other) during his administration?
You made your guess? No seriously, don’t keep reading until you make a guess.
Eric C guessed 7. I (Michael C) guessed 8. I have a feeling most people--but not our readers--will think it is less.
Well, Eric C was right. In 2016 alone, according to Micah Zenko, the U.S. dropped bombs on at least 7 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. (Those are the countries we have been at war in/with during the Obama administration.)
The sheer number of strikes should make you gasp too. Again, according to Micah Zenko, who we trust and respect, the number was over 26,000 in 2016 alone. 26,000!
So President Trump fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Is that high or low? Given that Obama launched an average of 76 strikes per day in 2016, it is right on course for a contemporary US president. (For instance, we know the military under Trump launched strikes in Mosul last month.)
So before we use these strikes as evidence that Trump is now a warhawk, or impulsive, or somehow “presidential”, let’s understand the context. The introduction above is that context. So let’s debunk the other myths about this missile strike.
Myth 1: This is a huge escalation of the conflict in Syria.
It isn’t, not until troops put boots on the ground, which likely would have happened when the Pentagon presented Trump a plan to defeat ISIS (he signed an Executive Order demanding that, remember?). In our post on the likeliest countries for Trump to go to war, Syria was second. Second! We’ve also put more boots on the ground in Iraq under Obama to fight ISIS, which could lead into a war with/in Syria.
Again, this isn’t to say that these missile strikes don’t make getting involved less likely. It definitely makes it more likely. But we were trending toward intervention after Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on defeating ISIS. (And yeah, we probably already have special operators on the ground in Syria anyways, but you know what I mean.)
Myth 2: No, it’s a huge escalation because it attacks Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
This is true. We have shifted enemies from “Just ISIS” to “Both ISIS and Assad.” But knowing Trump could reverse himself in a week means we can only read some much into this.
Also, it has to be noted that Obama considered this exact same strategy. And the night before Trump launched the attacks, Hillary Clinton said she would have done the exact same thing. That shows that Trump’s attacks were really a part of a policy that is really in the mainstream of current establishment thinking. And something generals have wanted for years. Really this isn’t a “huge” escalation in the Trump sense, but just a standard escalation by any US president.
Myth 3: This is Trump’s first military action.
How quickly we forget! In January, Trump authorized special operators to attack a compound in Yemen. We know civilians died. We know suspected terrorists died. We know a special operator died. So blood had already been shed by Trump, and if Yemen continues the way it is going, I could see an escalation there as well. In fact, the Trump administration has openly pondered expanding their Yemen operations.
Myth 4: Now we know Trump is reckless.
Wait, we needed evidence that Trump is reckless and foolhardy and flip-flops on everything he says and does? We already knew that. This is what we wrote before the election:
“Donald Trump is a complete liability if he were to take over the office of the President. Since he has no guiding principles in foreign policy, he could do anything, which makes him a complete liability with nuclear weapons and our military.”
Trump went through three campaign chairmen during the election. He breaks political and international norms on a weekly basis. Trump has irritated almost every US ally with the things he said. He even blamed American generals for losing a soldier in Yemen! Did we need him to impulsively attack a country to know he was impulsive?
No, we didn’t. I wrote about it here. And here. And here. This instead just confirms our Bayesian prior, to use the FiveThirtyEight language of it all. We suspected he would use military force flippantly, and he has. This doesn’t make it more or less likely than before, I would say it makes it exactly as likely.
Myth 5: This attack was illegal.
Not really. Under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after 9/11, as long as a President links a military operation to fighting groups that are allied with Al Qaeda, he can use military force. I’m sure Trump has a lawyer who can make the same connection, even though this attack targeted a government base that “opposes” Al Qaeda. (Need a refresher on the AUMF? RadioLab has you covered here.)
The problem is with the AUMF. It is so short but so broad that a President can use it to go to war with almost any country he wants to. That’s how President Obama got his authorization for 26,000 plus strikes on seven countries.
But who is going to stop Trump? The Republicans? Will they demand he follow the AUMF more closely? They refuse to take a vote on anything that could be politically damaging. They also refuse to oppose Trump on any issue. So as long as he says he was allowed to do this strike on the AUMF, and Republicans don’t expressly oppose him, then this isn’t illegal.
(Should we repeal that AUMF? Of course. Will we? I doubt it.)
We don’t support this strike, but it doesn’t change anything.
Let’s be clear. I really don’t support striking Syria without a larger strategy. Or Congressional approval. And I don’t think this shows that President Trump is consistent or somehow good at foreign policy. Nothing has shown me that to date.
But I don’t want to over-react just because he is Trump.