‘The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory,” wrote Sun Tzu in his book “The Art of War.”
That’s good advice — and advice that the author of “The Art of the Deal” should take to heart when thinking about the act of war that he unilaterally ordered this week against the Syrian regime. A cruise missile fusillade is an efficient way to wreck an airbase. But it is only a military tactic, not a strategy for victory.
To be sure, there won’t be any victors in the years-long human tragedy unfolding in Syria. The poison gas used against civilians there is a stark reminder of man’s capacity for indiscriminate cruelty as well as the international community’s inability or unwillingness to restrain it.
Restraint is important when it comes to waging war. It is the reason our constitution prevents the president from launching one alone. Congress restrains the executive by approving or rejecting war. Donald Trump certainly thought so when he tweeted, on August 30, 2013: “The President must get congressional approval before attacking Syria — big mistake if he does not!” Just so. Congress considered military action in Syria after a poison gas attack and opposed it.
Trump must seek immediate congressional approval for continued conflict in Syria. The idea that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is somehow applicable here is farcical. The Assad regime is not Al Qaeda.
One of the first questions that legislators will — or should — ask, and which the president must explain, is this: What are US goals in Syria, and how will these particular military actions help achieve them? There may indeed be answers to those questions, but they have yet to be brought before the American people, in whose name those missiles are being fired.
Articulating a coherent strategy and the way that strategy will be implemented is critical, because it forces a unity of effort between military, diplomatic, humanitarian, and intelligence efforts, which have often been at cross purposes.
The Trump administration is coming late to the war in Syria. Yet it seems keen to fight first and afterwards look for a victory. What they should also be looking for is an exit strategy from one of the world’s bloodiest quagmires.