Once upon a time, an American president said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” About a hundred years after that, another American who would later become president said, “Why do we keep broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria. Why can't we just be quiet and, if we attack at all, catch them by surprise?” Now President Trump seems to have ignored both his own advice to President Obama and the counsel of Theodore Roosevelt.
President Trump responded with a tweet this morning that said, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!' You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
A second tweet a short time later was more conciliatory, as if perhaps John Kelly might have alerted the president to the fact that he just threatened to start what could potentially become WWIII. Trump appealed to Vladimir Putin, saying, “Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War. There is no reason for this. Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do, and we need all nations to work together. Stop the arms race?”
A third tweet on the subject, about 90 minutes later, was the obligatory swipe at the Mueller and the Russia investigation as well as a denial of collusion. “Much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation, headed up by the all Democrat loyalists, or people that worked for Obama. Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!”
With his warning to Syria and Russia, this time President Trump has upped the ante. There can be no doubt that Syrian air defenses, which include Russian forces, will be on high alert. This may needlessly put American pilots at risk.
A better tactic would have been the one successfully used by Trump last year – and by the Israelis earlier this week. As suggested so long ago by Teddy Roosevelt, President Trump should avoid the war of words and hit the Syrians without warning if a strike is truly his intent.
Over the past decade, the world has gotten used to strong talk from the United States. All too often that talk is not accompanied by action. When President Obama drew his line in the sand and then did nothing, American credibility suffered. Obama had previously said, “Assad must go,” but again did nothing.
Last year, President Trump backed his words with a one-off missile strike, but ultimately put Syria on the back burner. Last weekend's gas attack was preceded by President Trump's instructions to the military to prepare for a withdrawal of all forces from Syria. A similar unilateral withdrawal from Iraq by President Obama allowed ISIS to flourish.
Strongly worded tweets are not sufficient to win the war in Syria. President Trump should take the advice that he and President Roosevelt offered so long ago. Talk to military commanders instead of tweeting to the world. Find a winning strategy and use it to hit the enemy... hard.
Further, winning in Syria requires a long-term commitment, not just a quick missile strike. If the US withdraws, Russia and Iran will be the dominant players in the region. This would put a large hostile force on the border of Israel and perilously close to the oil fields of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Nature abhors a vacuum, and, as Barack Obama found out, so do terrorist groups and despotic regimes. Hopefully, President Trump will learn from President Obama's missteps.