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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Trump’s red line in Syria

President Trump delivered a statement on Syria last week from Mar-a-Lago.
President Trump delivered a statement on Syria last week from Mar-a-Lago. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

When a president finds his approval rating in the doldrums and Congress slow to enact his domestic agenda, he naturally turns to foreign policy in search of quick wins.

That, at any rate, is the cynical interpretation of President Donald Trump’s decision on Thursday to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airfield in Homs, in retaliation for the dictator Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

My view of Trump’s action is a more positive. It’s not that I think one salvo of missiles is going to end the civil war in Syria. Of course it won’t. But I think we can now discern the beginning of the improvement in US foreign policy we have been waiting for ever since President Obama handed Trump the keys to the White House.


Bear in mind that Obama’s worst mistake as president was his indecision about Syria. Back in August 2011, he told Assad to “step aside.” He didn’t. In February 2012, Obama tried going through the UN Security Council. Russia and China used their vetoes. In the summer of 2012, Obama reluctantly authorized CIA training of just 10,000 rebel fighters. When finally deployed, they proved useless.

It was in the wake of these failures that the White House warned Assad that if he used chemical weapons he would “cross a red line.” Guess what: he used them anyway. On August 31, 2013, Obama’s red line proved to be a pink dotted line when he announced that he would seek congressional approval for military action. Enter the Russians, who said they would persuade Assad to hand over his chemical weapons.

Obama has said he remains “very proud” of his decision not to enforce the red line. I find that hard to believe. Syria lies in ruins. The total death toll lies somewhere between 320,00 and 470,000. The Syrian Network For Human Rights puts the number of civilian fatalities at 207,000. More than 10 million people have been driven from their homes; half of them have fled abroad. Not only did Obama leave Syria in ruins; he left American credibility in the region in a similar state.


The termination of this shameful saga of American impotence is surely to be welcomed.

Not convinced? Well, one indication that a decision is really good is when really bad people line up to denounce it. Step forward Ann Coulter, scourge of the left, and up until this point an ardent fan of President Trump.

“[Trump] told us he would be the president of America, not ‘the world,’” she tweeted shortly after the Tomahawks struck. “Could somebody show him pictures of Americans raped & killed by illegals?”

Next up: Glenn Greenwald, scourge of the right and confederate of Edward Snowden, the “whistle-blower” who fled to Russia after exposing he National Security Agency’s data surveillance operation.

“The idea that a person only becomes a ‘Real US President’ by killing foreigners is a long-standing media theme to encourage US war,” tweeted Greenwald on Thursday night.

Finally, let’s hear from Greenwald’s pals in Moscow. According to the Kremlin, Trump was guilty of “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” The head of the Russian propaganda outlet RT observed darkly that the air strikes had been ordered on the centenary of the US entry into World War I.

It is true that the United States went to war in April 1917 partly for humanitarian reasons: wartime propaganda never tired of condemning German “atrocities” against Belgian civilians and passengers aboard the Lusitania. Yet these were not the principal reasons why President Woodrow Wilson opted to intervene. A German plot to back Mexican territorial claims against the United States had been exposed by British intelligence. More importantly, Russia’s revolution had given Germany the prospect of victory. Intervention gave the United States an opportunity to tip the scales in Britain and France’s favor and to shift the post-war international order in the direction of collective security.


Wilson, in short, had a strategy. Does Trump?

Certainly, last week’s action has signaled to the world that a new sheriff is in town and he doesn’t fire blanks. That in itself is good. Second, Trump has also made it clear to his guest at Mar-a-Lago, Chinese President Xi Jinping, that he will not shirk from using force against rogue regimes. That includes China’s wayward client North Korea.

Third, we can presumably now forget the theory that Trump is the “Muscovite candidate,” controlled remotely from the Kremlin. “Russia faces a choice,” the White House said on Thursday: “Either it takes responsibility for ensuring that Assad complies with the removal of these weapons as Russia committed it would do or it admits that it lacks the ability to control Assad.” Some puppet.

Yet none of this amounts to a coherent strategy to stabilize the Middle East. If Thursday was merely a return to the old Clintonian habit of firing missiles into the sand without any wider strategic purpose, then the disappointment will be intense. If, on the other hand, we now see steps in the direction of a US-led peace conference, then a bright new red line will have been drawn — a line under the failed American foreign policy of the Obama era.


Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.