hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 7 April 2017

Syria: My View from Washington

“We cannot be any stronger in our foreign policy for all the bombs and guns we may heap up in our arsenals than we are in the spirit which rules inside the country. Foreign policy, like a river, cannot rise above its source”.

Adlai Stevenson

Washington DC, 7 April. What are the strategic implications of President Trump’s decisive but limited missile strike yesterday against a remote desert airstrip in Syria? Ironically, I spent much of yesterday in the White House, and elsewhere in DC, discussing US foreign and security policy, including Syria. There is no question that the loosing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles by two US warships in the Eastern Mediterranean marks a change from the policy of the Obama administration, but to what extent? Is the strike an emotional response by President Trump to this week’s disgusting footage of children dying in chemically-induced agony, is it an act to deter Assad from further use of toxic weapons, or is it the start of a new phase of US engagement?

My sense of the state of the Administration’s putative foreign and security policy today is that it is again a work in progress.  Talking to senior Americans across a political divide that runs through this city far wider and deeper than the mighty River Potomac is that the Administration is slowly moving towards a some form of concept for global engagement/grand strategy…even if thinks it is not. The primary impulse of President Trump in ordering the strikes was to punish Assad for a blatant use of ‘CW’ against his own people. However, by simply reinstalling some of President Obama’s tattered and faded red-lines, but not defining what or where they are, President Trump has already forced both Damascus and Moscow off-balance.

In Syria itself the implication is that the fight against Assad might now be accorded the same status as the fight against Islamic State (IS). Moscow clearly understands that which is why today Russia has suspended the agreement designed to ‘de-conflict’ air operations by Russia and the US-led coalition. By implicitly raising the level of risk to allied aircraft operating against IS Moscow hopes to relieve the pressure on its client Assad, which overnight the Americans increased.

At the regional-strategic level the strike has clearly reassured some American allies that unlike the Obama administration the new White House will not talk itself constantly and consistently into inaction. The Americans have certainly disturbed Tehran’s composure. Washington seems also to have sufficiently impressed Ankara for Turkey’s President Erdogan to back the strikes, thus suggesting President Putin will need to work far harder to achieve his policy goal of detaching Turkey from NATO. Still, the White House will need to be very clear-headed about what if any policy outcomes it seeks in the regional-strategic chess-cum-rugby match that is the Middle East and North Africa today.

It is at the grand strategic level where perhaps the strikes perhaps resonate most profoundly. One can almost palpably feel the disappointment/disturbance in Moscow that its concerted effort to shape American policy is failing. One has to feel things about Moscow today because the truth died some time ago in Russia. For a few years Moscow has forced Washington on the back foot and forced Washington to answer a simple but profound question; what are you going to do about us?  It is a question Washington has been unable to answer, thus sending the currency of US leadership into a nose dive. This morning at least America is posing the same question; what are you Moscow going to do about us?

Which brings me back to the twin issues of US strategy and leadership. Right now the very uncertainty over the Administration’s position has Putin, Assad and others holding their breath. What will President Trump do next? Will he call the Putin-Assad bluff and escalate further? Or, having returned a remote, secondary airstrip back to the desert will Washington now stop? If it is the former then President Trump is beginning a new era of American engagement and it will become rapidly clear that the target audience of US action is allies and adversaries alike that America means business (and I use that word advisedly). If it is the latter then the aim of the strike will have been little more than to assuage the moral outrage of the ‘something must be done but we are not sure what and why’ lobby in the West. In which case, plus ca change…

Europe? This week the French foreign minister called for the US to do more in Syria. Of course, the language employed by the Quai D’Orsay was wreathed in the mist and mystery of Talleyrand. The British were not far behind offering ‘full support’ to the US short of doing anything. Oh, Britain, what have you become? One point I made in the White House yesterday was that the Administration should be clear to its European allies; if they want the US to act, then they too must act.

For all that after a week here I do sense a profound shift in US policy is underway. First, President Trump IS abandoning the neo-isolationism that marked much of his rhetoric throughout the presidential campaign. That may have something to do with the growing influence of Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and National Security Advisor McMaster, who are beginning to hunt like a pack. Second, the over-intellectualised nothingness of US foreign and security policy under President Obama is being replaced by something far more rugged.

Which brings me in conclusion to my core question; is this policy? After all, one missile strike does not a policy make. The paradox of the Trump administration is that when one talks privately to pivotal members of it, as I have done this week, one does get the sense of serious work underway to reset US foreign and security policy and cast it clearly into a series of hard-headed but realistic goals and desired outcomes.

What next? At some point it would be nice for the Allie to hear just what that policy is. For the American people, particularly those that backed President Trump, it will be interesting to see what they think. Putin? Let’s see how he reacts.

Oh, and by the way, President Xi of China has just landed.

Julian Lindley-French         

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