Like Monday morning quarterbacks… every pundit (including this author) is an expert on a US President’s use of force within seconds after the rubble stops bouncing. So what are we pundits to make of President Trump’s unleashing of a flurry of Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syria last week?
For a start, a few of us are still unconvinced that Syria did use sarin nerve gas the other day. Yes, they might have, but the Assad government’s explanation for the atrocity in Khan Sheikhoun was that their bombs hit a rebel-stash of chemical weapons. The explanation is credible.
Nor, after the last 16 years of mixed results, should anyone regard US intelligence agencies as being omniscient. Some of their technologies might be unsurpassed, but the minds that review and analyze what they gather can be as partisan and opinionated as any in the United States these days.
However, the attack on the Syrian Shayrat Airfield last week was President Trump’s practical debut as the Commander-in -Chief of the US Military. What are we to think?
One can appreciate that this president isn’t as case hardened or callous as others who have held the office. Without serving an apprenticeship exposed – even at a remove – to the realities of conflict, it seems Trump was genuinely disturbed by what the chemical weapons attack did. He might be naïve but he displayed a genuine empathy, an admirable trait, although not always necessarily in a president.
President Trump was decisive in a welcome contrast to the huffing and puffing of his predecessor, who frequently said much but did little. Again, decisiveness is generally appreciated, but not always.
It would also seem Trump can quickly accept good advice from professionals. Whether or not the attack on Syria was merited, the target list for the cruise missile attack consisted of high-value military assets of the Assad government at Shayrat Airfield – hardened hangers, combat aircraft, SAM-sites and radars. Punishment, without excessive casualties.
At the same time, the US communicated their intentions to Russia, thus limiting the overall surprise of the attack but also removing the chance of dangerous misunderstandings. The US has clearly signalled its displeasure and made a firm statement of principle, like a teacher with an unruly class who may have given the strap to the wrong instigator of a particular incident. Justice might not have been dispensed, but perhaps the cause of order was advanced.
These are still early days for President Trump, but what we have seen of him last week are mostly on the credit side of the ledger.
John Thompson is a researcher, writer and commentator on defence and security issues at Think Tank of One.