Tomahawks and Trump: The failure of ‘America First’ foreign policy

I wrote this for a debate piece that never went forward. It has been in my backlog since the cruise missile strike in Syria. I thought, instead of letting it go to waste, I would publish it. I stand by the central argument anyway, so updating would not achieve anything.

Trump’s cruise-missile strike cost sixty million dollars. Let that marinate; each of the 59 Raytheon-built Tomahawk missiles costs the US taxpayer just over $1 million. Put another way; Trump could have fed 22,000 homebound senior citizens for a year through Meals on Wheels America. You may recognise the name. It is the charity that had a surge in funding because the golfer-in-chief’s “American First” budget slashed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by 17.9%. The HHS’s Older Americans Act Nutrition Program provides 35% of Meals on Wheels funding. Trump’s ‘America First’ style of governance is turning out to be pretty costly for Americans.

My bleeding heart aside though, the strike was imbecilic. In a world where Trump has his, Erik Prince, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ brother and Blackwater founder, attempting to establish a Putin backchannel in the Seychelles (The Washington Post), why on earth would he court open war with Russia and Iran over a marginally successful tactical strike? Moreover, before anyone gets their hackles up about the ‘W’ word, that is straight from the horses’ mouth. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Syrian strike had crossed a “red line” with Russia and Iran, with the former’s UK embassy saying: “From now on we will respond with force.”

The issue here is not only with Trump, however, but with US strategy in the Middle East in general. As renowned counter-terrorism scholar Audrey Kurth Cronin puts it: “[the] problem in any endless war is that tactics gradually take the place of strategy.” While she was discussing the use of targeted killings against terrorists, her words ring true universally. Tactical short-sightedness has become a facet of America’s endless war in the Middle East. The President has become the ‘tactician-in-chief,’ performing reactionary acts of aggression as a balm for the rage and guilt of the Western masses. Like a stuck record, the asses who sit at the Oval Office’s desk seem to believe war crimes and terror require an immediate escalation of violence. If only they would consider the extent to which they are complicit in creating the Syrian quagmire.

What’s more, the bombardment is flagrantly opposed to the tradition and law of armed conflict. The US Congress has not declared a state of armed conflict with Syria. The UN Security Council has not given its assent to US hostilities against the Assad regime. Moreover, there remain few legitimate justifications for the unilateral US response. While there is now little doubt that Assad’s regime sanctioned the chemical attack, independent verification came after the Tomahawk bombardment. Furthermore, while the Trump’s stilted and robotic speech stressed the importance of reprisals for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, there was and is no rational reason for the modus employed.

Additionally, despite conflicting reports on the capacity of the Syria air force to fly sorties from Shayrat airfield after the strike (some report flights mere hours after), the strike has had little positive effect. Pausing Syrian jets for a few weeks is not the same as having a coherent strategy for dealing with the Syrian crisis. Furthermore, stopping planes does not exonerate the Trump Administration’s unilateral response; Assad will just continue with the far less discriminate helicopter-launched ‘barrel’ bombs.

Lastly, in somewhat of a predictable conclusion, Trump has pivoted, changing his stance on NATO’s relevance – despite the fact he has done more than any other global actor to make NATO necessary. In a week, Trump has managed to squander millions of dollars in an austerity budget, alienate Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea (more than they already were), and shown himself to me the most spectacular hypocrite in recent political history. The cycle continues: promise a simplistic outlook on a highly complex issue, flip-flop once it is no longer politically expedient, and adopt the most mainstream Washington-elite strategy.