The Message of the Tomahawk

The Message of the Tomahawk
U.S. Navy photo by MC3 Robert S. Price
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The attack by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syrian military targets also delivered some important messages to a variety of audiences.

The U.S. response to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attack on a village in northwest Syria offered a small measure of solace to the families of the children brutally tortured, maimed, and murdered. Future chemical weapons atrocities will hopefully now be a thing of the past.

This narrowly tailored action by President Trump partially fulfilled President Obama’s threat of military consequences if Syria crossed his (i.e., America’s) “red line” by using chemical weapons.

Ironically, because this supposedly unempathetic president who cares little about Muslim suffering reacted only to the images of burned babies rather than in pursuit of a larger grand vision, in contrast to his predecessor, he is now accused of what might be called strategic impatience.

The missile barrage on the Syrian airfield near Homs—the source of the latest chemical attacks—sent a new message to the Assad regime.  While it imposed relatively minor physical punishment on the Syrian military, it inflicted significant psychological and political damage.

Assad, who until now has been impervious to international condemnation and immune from serious consequences, is dramatically highlighted as a war criminal.

At the same time Russia, long identified as Assad’s military and diplomatic protector, is now being named as his collaborator in crimes against humanity and put on notice that the outrages can no longer be carried out with impunity.

The president’s action has begun to dissipate the eight-year long strategic U.S. paralysis against the use of force.  It demonstrated that the new administration is fully capable of handling an emergency national security challenge in a timely, proportional, and effective manner.  “America First” does not mean ignoring international responsibilities.

In upholding the imperative sanctity of the world’s prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, the administration demonstrated that it would not be hampered by the dysfunctional UN Security Council.  The interminable debate there will end with the inevitable Russian veto—its eighth—which will prevent any meaningful international response again.

The administration instead enforced, without naming it, the United Nations doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect—the concept that regimes which commit crimes against their own populations thereby surrender part of their sovereignty.

The very idea of humanitarian intervention is anathema not only to Moscow but to Beijing which routinely joins Russia in using its Security Council veto to protect Assad and other criminal regimes.  It was altogether fitting and proper that the Syria action was taken while Xi Jinping was enjoying American hospitality.

The U.S. opportunely demonstrated to China that the U.S. would no longer be deterred from dealing firmly with lawless regimes simply because they enjoy by great power protection like that Beijing has provided North Korea for decades.

Moreover, of course, Kim Jong Un and Hassan Rouhani are also warned that they can no longer assume their violations of international law will go unpunished. 

Political cynics and anti-administration critics will offer alternative explanations and motives for the U.S. attack on Syria.  They will see it as a “wag the dog” diversion from ongoing investigations.

Alternatively, a projection strength and competence after the administration’s failure on health care legislation.  Or an attempt to boost the president’s sagging approval ratings in the polls.

However, the parents of the burned and suffocated children who were victims of Assad’s vicious attack and the parents of the children who will be spared future attacks will see it differently.  They will bless this president for what he did, even as they beg for sustained rescue.

And that may be the best response to the question posed to President Obama by candidate Trump in 2013--at a time when 350,000 of the 500,000 Syrians Assad has murdered were still alive.   He tweeted then: “What do you gain by attacking Syria?” 

He now knows the answer to his own question: the gratitude of the people avenged and of those who now have hope—and the world’s relief that America has returned to its indispensable role as the only capable enforcer of humanity’s most fundamental norms.

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