I love the idea of the “procustean bed.” It’s a phrase inspired by Greek mythology that’s come to describe the deceptive practice of depicting every notable event or feature of reality as fitting into a preconceived view of how the world works. It’s become standard operating procedure in our highly balkanized, increasingly fact-challenged, and ever more hysteria-prone political culture, and it nicely explains most of the commentary and analysis that’s followed President Trump’s decision to attack a Syrian air base following chemical weapons use in that country’s tragic civil conflict.
I have absolutely no inside information here, but strongly believe that the likeliest explanation is one that can’t easily be spun to advance any particular agenda, and that focuses on a crucial variable bound to be neglected when the main objective is political.
Not that I’m ruling out any of the sets of talking points being pushed so aggressively by the nation’s chattering class. It’s entirely possible that the Syria decision shows that the president never intended to carry out the kind of broadly stand-aside foreign policy he most often (but not always) touted during his campaign, and that he has cynically betrayed his core, non-interventionist, voters. Or that he simply has a learning curve and is wisely admitting that the dangerous world he’s operating in doesn’t permit an America First approach to be carried out safely.
The Syria strikes could reveal how fundamentally incoherent his worldview and agenda are – and are likely to remain. Or how pragmatic he has become. Or how emotionally and thoughtlessly he reacts to perceived challenge or betrayal (specifically, by a client state of a Russian government he’s supposedly coddled until now). Or how cunningly he’s decided to undercut charges that he’s a puppet of Moscow’s. Or, given Mr. Trump’s utter unpredictability on so many fronts, the Syria attacks could simply underscore how he continues to be just as utterly unpredictable in the Oval Office as he was on the campaign trail – which could mean that the Trump move means absolutely nothing at all.
But although all these takes on Syria could in theory be true, I doubt their veracity mainly because they pay absolutely no attention to considerations that would weigh heavily on the mind of even the least competent chief executive (or presidential aides) – the international circumstances staring him in the face once the chemical weapons news came through.
That’s why there’s such a strong case for the following as the prime determinants of the Trump decision – and as reasons for interpreting its long-term effects with extreme caution. Specifically, when the president ordered the strikes, he was in the middle of a summit with the leader of a foreign power – China – that had rapidly emerged as America’s foremost economic challengers and as at least a potential strategic rival. The day before the summit with Xi Jinping began, North Korea conducted the latest of a series of ballistic missile tests it’s conducted since President Trump’s inauguration, and in defiance of multiple United Nations resolutions. And the day before that came the chemical weapons attack – which itself preceded a meeting in Washington, D.C. between Mr. Trump and King Abdullah of Jordan.
So during a week when the global spotlight shone on President Trump with unprecedented intensity came two apparent provocations. (I’m purposely leaving open the possibility that Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad is not to blame for the chemical weapons bombing, though I believe the evidence – particularly the reported flights of fixed-wing aircraft over the site – point to Syria’s guilt.) Further, both provocations came very early during the first Trump term – a period when foreign leaders would naturally feel strongly tempted to test a new president, and when all countries would view him with great uncertainty even were he a more conventional politician.
In my view, all these circumstances combined to convince the president that a forceful response of some kind was needed. And since North Korea can credibly threaten American allies with conventional military and even nuclear attacks, and Syria can’t, Assad was the inevitable target.
In other words, the Trump strikes right now are best seen as a simple message-sending exercise. And the messages itself were simple as well. Not that, “I’ve changed my foreign policy stripes” and not that “I’m ready to plunge much more deeply into the Syria and other Middle East conflicts” but that “I have my limits” and “I have no intrinsic qualms about using the vast military arsenal at my disposal.”
Because the extreme shortage of competent policy analysts with a Trump-ian worldview has left the president little choice but to rely heavily on conventional thinkers for briefings and advice on foreign policy and other matters, it’s entirely possible that his air strikes presage a more activist Middle East or overall international strategy. At the same time, nothing about the strikes makes such a transformation inevitable, and especially far-fetched (as they always have been) are claims that individual uses of military power are pointless (at best) unless carried out as part of a broader plan of action meant to win or acceptably resolve a foreign conflict.
Particularly in the case of the Middle East, where history and recent American experience clearly teach that no constructive solutions are possible (or at least not at acceptable cost and risk), and where due to developments such as the U.S. domestic energy production revolution, the national interests at stake are no longer unquestionably vital, individual military actions that send uncomplicated messages can have significant value in their own right – and all the more so as they inevitably will be heard in many other regions, including those that matter more.
So everyone is best advised to hold their horses as they go about interpreting the Trump Syria strikes and especially about what futures they supposedly guarantee and rule out. Indeed, no one should heed this kind of advice more closely than President Trump.