The 1990s gave us Smell’s Like Teen Spirit, Mulder and Scully, Jerry, Kramer, George and Elaine and they gave us the Tomahawk cruise missile strike. For those nostalgic for those times the return of Mulder and Scully now comes accompanied by the Tomahawk cruise missile strike. Pity that the latter does not come with the word “Clinton” in front of it, as it almost might have.
One always must be careful to comment on developments as they proceed, I am generally speaking reluctant to do this, and the very recent US cruise missile strikes against Syrian military targets is a good case in point. Although the strikes have ended their ultimate significance and consequences are yet to play out.
A lot of analysis now focuses on interpreting its wider meaning and implications, with the matter of their justification, at least in the mainstream, having been settled. I will return to the latter, but I would like to make some comments, first, on the former.
The Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase is the first overt use of military firepower by the Trump administration and the sense of relief amongst the foreign policy establishment is palpable, including, crucially, among its liberal wing. Trump can be relied upon to wield the stick when required, and he is no toady of Vladimir Putin, so the sighs of relief suggest to us.
This is very much on a par with the June 1993 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes ordered by Bill Clinton against Baghdad early into his term of office. The sense of relief then was also palpable. The seeming pot smoking, though not inhaling, Woodstock generation peacenik hippie could be relied upon to employ US military firepower as the occasion befits. Never mind that, in reality, Clinton was not part of the social movements of the 1960s, the view that he was being mere Clintonite, and conservative, mythology.
As the subsequent record demonstrates, including NATO expansion toward Russia now at the source of our troubles, that sense of relief was well founded. Bill Clinton alleged, based on intelligence reports, that Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate former US president George HW Bush in retaliation for Operation Desert Storm (a key personal reason animating George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003). Months later analysis and reports emerged suggesting that intelligence was flawed.
No matter. Clinton showed that when it came to the use of military firepower it was going to be business as usual.
That same sense of relief can be readily discerned now with Trump.
After the missile strike, Israeli news outlets were filled with headlines like “The Americans Are Back,” and European leaders expressed relief both that he had taken action and that he had not gone too far.
“We have learned that Trump is not so isolationist as many Europeans feared he would be — he appears to care about victims of a gas attack in Syria,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform in London. “We have learned that he understands that U.S. influence had suffered from the perception — which grew under Obama — that it was a power weakened by its reluctance to use force.”
With Trump the foreign policy elites feared that his would be a nationalist America first administration pursuing an isolationist foreign policy, rather than the standard interventionist type.
The relief among liberals should be noted. It suggests a precedent for the future. Liberal opinion can, and will, be marshalled to support President Trump when he uses military force. Let us recall that post Mosul, in an airstrike that killed more than the Sarin nerve gas attack in Syria, liberals did not readily flood the public sphere with the appellation that Trump was a war criminal.
For them Ivanka Trump in the Oval Office is a fact of greater moment.
The second implication that I focus on is relations with Russia. Although the US informed Moscow prior to the strikes, the unilateral nature of them has displeased Russia and Moscow has suspended the military agreement, designed to prevent accidental exchanges of fire, between the US and Russia hitherto in place in Syria.
That is no small matter as this agreement was established to prevent an incident from escalating into a major crisis involving the world’s two leading nuclear powers. That is a consequence that bodes ill for global security and strategic stability, especially as it comes at a time when Trump is under pressure to enact measures against Russia for its alleged violation of the INF Treaty given its, alleged, deployment of the, alleged, SSC8 cruise missile.
For the people of Syria the consequences are potentially calamitous. The Assad regime is an obscenity, and the war it unleashed upon the people of Syria is nothing short of a human catastrophe. One potential consequence of the cruise missile strikes is that it will further cement Russia’s support for the Assad regime making it very difficult to achieve a negotiated settlement that involves a transition of power in Syria, possibly leading to the gradual phasing out of the Baathist regime.
In 2012 Russia offered such a settlement, but this was rejected by the US.
For those whose position regarding Syria is motivated by human concerns, rather than reasons of state, there can be no higher priority than enacting a negotiated settlement that ends the war. This should be the top priority in Syria, and if the outside world, Russia, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and so on, were serious about achieving an end that is in the interests of the people of Syria, rather than their own obscene narrow interests, that would be the focus of policy not a proxy type war the chief victims of which, in the all too familiar way, are the vulnerable and the pitiless.
What might we say regarding the justification for the strike? Key to this is the Sarin nerve agent that killed around 80 people, many of them children. One cannot help making the point that those who most express their outrage regarding this are those who close their hearts and their borders to the wretched victims of this filthy war.
The Sarin nerve attack was horrendous and barbaric. But the military response is a post hoc response. The non-use of chemical weapons is an important international norm at the centre of which is the Chemical Weapons Convention. Putting aside the quibble that chemical weapons are not really “weapons of mass destruction,” this is an important norm which should be sanctionable and enforceable if violated.
But it should be enforced by the international community through the United Nations. That is what international law demands. No single state has the right to arrogate to itself the enforcement of international norms, including the norm barring the use of chemical weapons. The record of the United States on this is hardly virtuous. For instance, the US supported Saddam Hussein when he used chemical weapons against the Kurds at Halabja which is estimated to have killed 3000 to 5000 people. So extreme was US support for this that Washington marshalled diplomatic backing for Baghdad when the Iranians revealed it to the world, sparking global outrage.
Notice that we are talking about the Reaganities here, essentially now back in power.
The US alleged that the Syrian regime conducted the Sarin gas attack, and that there exists good intelligence to support this contention. Most likely this is correct, but the evidence supporting this needed first to be presented to the UN for evaluation. Unilateral use of force based on unsubstantiated allegations from one state, especially a state that has form when it comes to these things, is not how an international norm should be sanctioned and enforced.
Currently the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is investigating the Sarin nerve gas attack, and it issued the following statement
The OPCW is investigating the incident in southern Idlib under the on-going mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), which is “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic”. The OPCW cannot and will not release information about an on-going investigation. This policy exists to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process and its results as well as to ensure the safety and security of OPCW experts and personnel involved. All parties are asked to respect the confidentiality parameters required for a rigorous and unimpeded investigation.
One could argue that such niceties are not applicable in the case of credible reports of the imminent use of chemical weapons, especially nerve agents, but we are discussing here the justification of a post hoc attack.
Of course, the standard argument is that Russia would have vetoed any resolution at the UN sanctioning Assad. However, no attempt was made to reach a resolution so we cannot know just what Russia would have agreed to. We should note that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government violates a disarmament agreement, by which Assad should have dispensed with his chemical weapons, reached through the auspices of Moscow.
The use of chemical weapons by Assad also goes to Russia’s credibility, so a blanket position of noncooperation at the UN should not be assumed by fiat.
Those who support Trump’s unilateral use of force support a conception of world order where the US can use military power when, where and how it sees fit on the usual maxim that what we says goes, a maxim reflective of what Edward Said referred to as the culture of imperialism which we unreflexively breathe like we breathe air.
Those, other than Assad apologists of which I am not one, who consider Trump’s action unjustified hold to a different conception of world order one where international norms are safeguarded through principles of collective and cooperative security.