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President Trump’s surprise cruise-missile strike at Syria on Thursday night was a game changer for both his presidency and geopolitics. Most of its probable consquences have not yet been explored in any depth, at least in mainstream media. So let’s take a look.
First, the strike may have saved Trump’s presidency, at least for now, from sinking in a mire of conflicts of interest, contradictions, ignorance and sheer incompetence. By relying on his experienced military advisers, who are among the most competent and qualified members of his team, Trump began to show signs of becoming more than a showman. At very least, fewer pundits will now suspect him of colluding with Putin now that he has taken a clear and definite swipe at Putin’s interests and Putin’s bestial client Assad.
This obvious political effect may have been one of the chief motivations for the strike, at least on the part of Trump’s political team. There’s nothing like a cruise-missile strike, with explosions and burning buildings, to undermine well-founded suspicions that Trump could have been Putin’s puppy.
But second to this glaringly obvious political point, there was something else. In his public statements before and after the strike, Trump had shown his human side. The videos of innocent children, gasping for breath on their way to certain death, evidently moved him. In just a couple of days, his policy toward Assad’s persistent butchery changed from calculated indifference to righteous indignation and wrath. In that wrath, Trump mirrored the feelings of the vast majority of Americans, indeed the vast majority of human beings on this planet.
The third point is more procedural, but equally important. According to the initial New York Times report on the subject
, our military gave Russia’s military warning of the strike beforehand. But we gave no direct warning to Putin or his political apparatus.
The direct, military-to-military warning served to save both Russian and Syrian lives and avoid possible escalation of the strike between the US and Russia. No doubt it was given only a short time before the missiles hit, while they were in the air and unrecallable. In that case the Russian military’s options would have been limited: just get personnel out of harm’s way and worry about the buildings and equipment later.
Warnings like this one—and the fact that this one apparently worked well—have enormous implications for the future of diplomacy and conflict management. Bent supreme leaders like Putin dream airy dreams of strategic advantage on a gigantic global chessboard, without regard to their human cost, let alone to innocent civilians. In contrast, military leaders must and do calculate practical consequences on the ground, in advance.
It’s the military’s job to estimate how many troops and what weapons an attack or defense requires, and how many troops and innocent civilians will die. It’s also their job to calculate probabilities, not just of winning or losing, but of various probable levels of advance, setback, suffering and devastation. They know, far better and in far more detail than their political bosses, what their weapons and defenses can and cannot do.
Without a doubt, it was military men who played a key role in avoiding species self-extinction in October 1962. They had the job of informing US President Jack Kennedy and USSR General Secretary Nikita S. Khrushchev how many cities would become radioactive rubble and how many hundreds of millions of innocent civilians would die in any “total war” between the US and USSR. They had the sad job of reporting to their civilian political leaders the conclusions of many physicists and biologists that such a war, and the “nuclear winter” it would produce, might cause the self-extinction of our human species.
They did their jobs well. Somehow, some way, despite all the suspicion and paranoia of the Cold War, then in full rage, the ultimate in “total war” never came. Maybe the single Soviet sailor who may have saved the world
—by refusing to authorize the use of Soviet nuclear-tipped torpedoes—did so because he had higher rank than the two who gave their authorization, and so knew something realistic about the consequences of total nuclear war.
As our species backs down from the insanity of “total war
” toward accurate weapons that just take out the bad guys and leave the innocent and useful property alone
, this sort of military-to-military cooperation will become more and more essential. Our weapons today are far too powerful, and the consequences of their use far too horrible and unpredictable, for our species to allow any single leader to roll the dice of apocalypse.
Thursday it was reportedly
a whole roomful of people in the Situation Room who made the decision to strike Syria. Uncharacteristically, President Trump asked a lot of questions. Eventually he chose one of the mildest and least risky options offered by our military.
The fourth and final point of this essay relates to Putin’s perfidy. One of the beneficent effects of military-to-military communication between us Yanks and the Russians was reportedly a very precise one. Apparently additional stockpiles of the very same nerve-gas-filled weapons that killed some 80 innocent civilians in Idlib Province were stored at the Syrian base that our cruise missiles hit. So we aimed our missiles to avoid
those stockpiles, in order to save both Russian and Syrian lives from the risk of randomly floating nerve gas.
But how did we know where those stockpiles were? Either our intelligence was picture perfect, or someone on the Russian side told us. So our strike avoided unintended consequences, but the Syrians still
have a stockpile of nerve gas that, according to our agreement with the Russians in 2012, should have been exported from Syria and destroyed years ago.
Let’s be clear about the implications of this fact. In 2012, President Obama agreed not to enforce his “red line” after Assad’s prior
unprovoked and bestial gas attack on his own civilians. Obama did so in exchange for Russia agreeing to supervise the removal and destruction of all
of Assad’s chemical weapons.
At that time, Russia had a minimal military presence in Syria. So we could have taken out most or all of Assad’s murderous air force with little or no losses to ourselves and our international coalition. That alone might have forced Assad to the bargaining table. Or at least it might have slowed the juggernaut of his butchery, which now has turned Syria into rubble, expelled millions of refugees, and destabilized the Middle East and much of Europe.
President Obama, relying on diplomacy and trust, agreed to the exchange. But the Russians didn’t fulfill their side of the bargain. Or they stood idly by while Assad manufactured additional supplies of sarin gas.
At the same time, the Russians used the cover of their diplomacy to fortify Syria’s air defenses with their own advanced ground-to-air missiles and their own advanced warplanes and pilots. They even appear to have participated in attacks on civilian targets, including hospitals. In so doing, they have made Assad’s broken yet still brutal Syria a military colony of Russia, so that any attack by us, the West or the Sunni powers threatens war with Russia. They have bought Assad’s Syria, with all its daily atrocities, and now they own it.
From an eighteenth-century imperial point of view, this may have seemed a daring strategic move on Putin’s part, with consequent geopolitical “success” for Russia—at least if you can call millions displaced, a Middle East in turmoil, and a Europe in crisis and turning toward the right wing a “success.” All these global agonies are direct consequences of Putin’s “strategic” diplomatic deception. Doesn’t Putin recall what Germany’s right wing did to Russia in the last big war?
When you add that to Russia’s recent deployment of a new cruise missile, thereby violating a strategic arms control treaty
, and Russia’s near invasion of Eastern Ukraine, thereby provoking a civil war that caused the downing of a whole civilian airliner by Russian stooges with a Russian ground-to-air missile
, the whole nasty picture comes into focus. Russia under Vladimir Putin, with at least the world’s second-most-dangerous nuclear technology and second-most-modern “conventional” weapons, has become humanity’s worst nightmare: a rogue great power—a dangerous nation ruled by a man who cannot be trusted.
In the facts of human agony on the ground, Putin has shown, again and again, a tendency to seek every possible “advantage” by means fair or foul, with the consequence of the most vast human suffering, devastation and dislocation of humanity since the Second World War. As if acting out a sick Russian joke, he has repeatedly trampled other people’s gardens
rather than tend his own in Russia.
Under these circumstances, we Yanks cannot blame President Trump for raising our military budget. We can, of course, blame him for cannibalizing our civilian budget to pay for it—an expedient that nothing besides sheer meanness toward the unfortunate and GOP ideology demand.
But a return to something like the Cold War, in which Russia has no prayer of matching the steady military innovation and development of a much richer and more powerful nation, is apparently the only thing that Putin and his crew today can understand. The utter devastation of Syria, the chaos of Eastern Ukraine in a civil war that common-sense diplomacy could easily have averted, the destabilizing of the Middle East and Europe, and perhaps Trump’s mostly clueless presidency itself—all stand as monuments to the ends to which Putin will go to achieve his sick views of strategic “advantage” for Mother Russia, no matter how dangerous, risky, tenuous or harmful to others they may be. No sentient Mother, conscious of the likely consequences, would let her man do anything like this.
But Trump’s military investment must be smart and strategic, not haphazard. First and foremost, it must include effective responses to cyberwar and “weaponized” retail cyber-propaganda
, to which we as yet have little effective defense
Paradoxically, such responses should help prevent a reoccurrence of the cyberattacks that seem to have given Trump his presidency. Strengthening our cyber-defenses will also give Trump’s political minions a basis on which to refute claims of Trump’s political collusion with Putin. Whatever the cost, those measures are vital to protect our democracy and way of life against a threat all the more dangerous for being unsuspected until recently and still poorly understood.
Trump’s investment in defense must also include the modernization of our nuclear arsenal that President Obama authorized and started. We must make our nukes smaller, more flexible and more accurate, so that if the dread time for their use ever comes we can erase the bad guys and leave the gleaming cities and their civilian populations intact.
“Total war” is a path to sui-genocide for our species. We can and must find a way to hold rogue leaders—and not their innocent civilian populations—individually accountable
for the suffering and dislocation they cause. A future essay will discuss this point in more detail.
In Syria as in Ukraine, Putin has shown by his actions—or at least by his criminal negligence
—that the world is and will be a far more dangerous and unhappy place under his leadership of Russia. Unless he acts quickly now to remove Assad and to stabilize Syria as part of a real and effective international coalition, we have no choice but to act accordingly.
We must protect our homeland and the part of our species that shares our values against cyberattacks, “weaponized” retail propaganda, and the ever-widening consequences of Syria’s “strategic” devastation and Eastern Ukraine’s totally gratuitous Russia-caused civil war. And we must goad our allies—with a bit more diplomacy and politesse than Trump has applied so far—to share the burden of that defense. Enough of a twenty-first century Metternichian deceiver and troublemaker is enough.