Finally Striking Syria

Ken Allard | Retired U.S. Army Colonel

So we finally struck Syria. Again. But only after savvy old Jim Mattis had enlisted Britain and France to join us, whittling down Trump’s Tweets to a more proportional target list. While our pilots returned safely, how can American strategic interests be pursued without risking a much wider war?

As a Marine, Secretary Mattis knows that there are two kinds of air strikes: the ones that feel good as demonstrations of macho intent but accomplish little of lasting value, and the ones that can cause wars, typically long after those initial headlines have faded away. (This same rule generally applies to naval blockades, cyber-espionage, trade wars or other hostile acts that often look wildly different, either in retrospect or from the other guy’s perspective.)

Just ask Bill Clinton, a man who once avoided military service but, later in life, practically turned the cruise missile into a Weapon of State. These marvelous war-bots mostly hit where you aimed them, avoiding both collateral damage and those nagging uncertainties of putting pilots in harm’s way. So whenever President Bubba wanted to look macho or simply to drive Monica’s name from the headlines, he directed the military to fire cruise missiles at odd targets – once even a milk factory in Khartoum. But he found war to be a considerably nastier business in Mogadishu, where nearly a hundred Rangers on ‘peacekeeping’ duties became casualties in a single afternoon.

His Somalia intervention looked radically different from the perspective of those unfortunates who happened to live there. Sadly, Syria today resembles Somalia, a ruined state-of-nature where red-lines mean as little as conventions on chemical warfare. Adding to the danger are the exquisite ironies of great-power rivalries in what remains of that country. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had a prescient warning for the Security Council: “The Cold War is back with a vengeance, but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.”

But an even more pointed post-strike comment was delivered by Anatoly Antonov – and via Twitter of all things: “”Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences…Insulting the President of Russia is unacceptable and inadmissible.”

And there you have it folks, those two macho dudes Trump and Putin: each commanding some of the world’s most powerful military forces; each with representatives of those forces deployed in and around the Syrian combat zones; and both with historical interests and critical allies at stake. No wonder the Secretary-General issued his stark warning! Do you think he is overstating his case? Or can he also read a map, able to cite some of the numerous historical examples when the fog of war produces unexpected consequences?

Speaking of the map: Exactly how far is it between it between Damascus, scene of last night’s combat and the Plain of Megiddo, starting-point for the Battle of Armageddon prophesied in Scripture? The two possible answers are either 90 miles. Or a lot closer than you think.

So how do we advance American interests in a dangerous situation without risking World War III? The answer may lie in the wisdom offered by that most prolific author, Anonymous: “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has limits.”

If carried out successfully, the principal value of a limited strike is that it highlights the willingness to use force to underline a principle. But it also leaves the next move up to the opponent, inviting him to take a moment to consider his best options. In such circumstances, ill-considered comments on Twitter are especially inappropriate; insults are even worse, an invitation to disaster. Mr. President, never miss such a perfect opportunity to keep your mouth shut.

Not only are our allies as well as the Russians and Iranians now listening closely, so too are the North Koreans. Last night, the American military showed that we can still provide potent force to back up diplomacy, now being shaped by a new White House triumvirate (Mattis-Pompeo-Bolton). Their key test both in the Middle East and North Asia: Neither under-reaching nor over-reaching but carrying out a long-term strategy that relates means, ends and American interests.

Our national security ultimately depends on persuading Americans that the price is worth the costs. Mr. Trump, your predecessor was elected on a platform that embraced weakness and sequestered our military almost to the breaking point. Russia and China are acutely aware of those weaknesses as well as the traditional American aversion to casualties. You must remain focused on rebuilding American military power while husbanding our remaining capabilities. And constantly remind Americans of both parties that their military is not Them but US.

As they demonstrated again last night.

Colonel Ken Allard is a former Army intelligence officer, West Point professor and military analyst for NBC News.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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