In the unleashing of media passions following President Trump’s strike on Syria, there were few surprises. Political pundits of the left and right who have never had a kind word to say about Trump suddenly oozed approval, offering a staggering confirmation of the power of the bipartisan war party. By contrast, those pundits who supported Trump for his steadfast refusal to commit the United States to the military removal of Assad were dismayed. Yet both camps assumed that the strikes were aimed at military-backed regime change. Why?
There was no evidence of regime-toppling intent in statements by members of Trump’s administration. The military action was described as a one-time strike to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons and to deter their further use. Secretary of State Tillerson immediately affirmed after the strike that there was no change of policy to attempt to instigate military backed regime change against Assad.
The narrative of imminent military-backed regime change is so strong, and so ingrained within media passions, because when it comes to discussing military strikes, the question of military-backed regime change has dominated practice for years.
In fact, if one sets aside all counter-terrorism activities, and considers only direct U.S. military strikes against foreign states, then the strike on Assad’s Syria is a stunning event. This strike marks the first time since Operation Desert Fox in 1998 that the United States has engaged in a direct military strike against a foreign state that does not have as its objective dramatically destabilizing or changing a regime. In 1998 concerns that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was failing to comply with UN resolutions governing the reduction of its capabilities to manufacture and use weapons of mass destruction prompted the United States to run a short bombing campaign against Hussein and punish him in an effort to encourage a reduction in these capabilities.
That the United States has gone almost twenty years without using similar punitive strikes is a clear indication of a paradigm shift with respect to our discussion of military action. By ‘paradigm,’ I mean here the principal questions and strategies that arise ordinarily in the public sphere when considering military action. These vary over time. In the 1940s, the deliberate targeting of civilian population centers for bombing raids was regularly debated as part of strategy. That was no longer the case in the early 1950s, as General MacArthur discovered during his showdown with President Truman.
At present, the dominant paradigm evaluates military action almost entirely with respect to the question of regime change: whether we should or should not use military force to remove so-and-so from power.
What kind of question would a re-invigoration of the old paradigm pose instead? Aaron Sorkin, of all people, supplied us with a plausible question during the first season of his hit series, The West Wing. Sorkin’s script sets up the new administration of Josiah Bartlett to respond to an outrage by, of all countries, Syria. The Syrian government, the story goes, has shot down an unarmed transport aircraft, killing dozens of American citizens. The President is livid. For retaliation, his National Security Council has drawn up a list of small Syrian targets. Yet President Bartlett will have none of it, seeing that it does not do justice to the lives lost. Pushing for a stronger military action that brings “total disaster” on the Syrian government, he asks his advisers: “What is the virtue of a proportional response?”
Bartlett receives the reply: “it isn’t virtuous, Mr President, it’s all there is.” The reply is wise. In considering military action, the proportional response at first blush seems paltry; certainly when compared to upholding a grand humanitarian ideal like bringing peace, freedom, and justice to a troubled country. Yet that goal is too vague to be achievable. To reach that goal, Bartlett realizes he would have to be ready to kill an indefinite number of people. Bartlett learns the real virtue of a proportional response: it places military action within a limited, restricted framework that minimizes destruction and loss of life.
The episode took for granted that the audience recognized the proportional response was the prudent course of action. The question of bringing ‘total disaster,’ never mind regime change, was meant to appear irrational and outrageous. Yet since that West Wing episode aired in 1999, Sorkin’s question has been swept aside.
The 1999 Kosovo bombings, begun for humanitarian reasons, were intended to make Serbia concede the region of Kosovo to separatists and to topple Slobodan Milosovic’s government. It worked. This started the process of normalizing regime change as the objective of direct military strikes. After 9/11, the Kosovo example looked like a readily applicable strategic option bringing lasting benefits. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were conducted for regime change.
The paradigm under which the United States has operated for the better part of two decades, then, is one in which military strikes have no other objective than the annihilation of the opposing government. But this paradigm is in crisis. Consider its most recent application, NATO’s military operations against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011. Gaddafi’s armies were supposed to be on the verge of massacring civilians in Benghazi. Consequently, this justified a military operation to remove Gaddafi from power for humanitarian reasons. In 2016, the British Parliament released a report on the build-up and conduct of the war in Libya. Its conclusions were scathing. Although directed at then-Prime Minister David Cameron, its conclusions readily apply to other intervening Western governments. They failed to pursue readily available diplomatic options, and dropped any strategy of limited military engagement to pursue, instead, a strategy of regime change.
Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson recently drew attention to Libya as the example to avoid in Syria. The Parliamentary report’s conclusion on Libya makes it clear. The result of assuming that the removal of Gaddafi needed to be the objective of military action has been “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises,” and “widespread human rights violations.” It is no wonder that President Obama hesitated about enforcing red lines in Syria in 2013. But even that famously cerebral President could not craft a course of action that while not attempting regime change did not also look inept and ridiculous (recall Secretary of State Kerry’s reassurances that a military strike in Syria would be “unbelievably small“).
So it has taken President Trump to shatter this paradigm. With a small, limited strike, but one he performed swiftly, he has conveyed a powerful and clear message. As long as he holds to the present strategy of a limited punitive strike, he will accomplish the biggest paradigm shift on military action in two decades.
The characteristics of this paradigm are several. First, it uses direct, limited military strikes to punish a state for actions that break international norms. Second, it does not to seek explicit approval from the UN Security Council for these kinds of limited military strikes. Third, it places the burden on Congress to discuss what kinds of military strikes are appropriate for the President to conduct. Fourth, it distinguishes between a punitive military strike directed at another state and the start of a war with that state.
Even careful reflections on the strategic options in Syria pass over this last characteristic, seeing military strikes as equivalent to full-out war to depose Assad. Does this one strike mean the US is at war with Assad’s Syria? As Reagan replied to an analogous question, after he launched a series of punitive strikes on Iran in 1987: ‘They’re not that stupid.”
Doubtless this paradigm is much older. For some, it brings back memories of the early 20th century: Trump is akin to Kaiser Wilhelm II, gambling with world peace to play soldier. However, reflecting on the limited objectives of the Syrian strike, I would submit that the paradigm his administration is trying to reintroduce is more like that of Cardinal Richelieu’s raison d’État, where war is an instrument of the art of politics.
Although raison d’État has been much maligned as an invitation to amorality, the essence of Richelieu’s raison d’État is proportionality. It calls for a just proportion between the ends pursued and forces of state used to achieve those ends. Richelieu’s understanding of the use of force subordinates war to politics. Rather than invite amorality, the subordination of war to politics is actually a moral principle. The principle is to restrain the idea of unlimited war through precise political objectives and political understanding of these circumstances.
These particular political means can still be stern and unscrupulous. In Trump’s case, for example, the timing of the strike must have sent a serious message to China. Yet they need not be wholly unscrupulous. A mistake frequently made about Richelieu’s raison d’État, notably in academic international relations theory is to see raison d’État as a mechanical system of balance of power governed by an under-developed concept of self-interest. That is not the case here. The ultimate ends of statecraft can still be to maintain and promote humanitarian ends—as long as the use of military action remains moderated and limited. In this paradigm, grand humanitarian ideals are not ends to be realized through military means. They are instead to be realized through example, persuasion, and—like Aristotle’s best regime—through prayer. So Trump concludes his brief address on the Syrian strikes:
We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.
Many editorials note Trump’s past statements on Syria that contradict his present actions, for he has indeed consented to a military strike against Assad’s Syria. From the perspective of raison d’État, this contradiction is not troubling. As any commander should know, a priori responses to unfolding military and political events are an invitation for strategic mistakes, because they disregard varying circumstances and conditions in coming to the conclusion at which one must arrive. Writing in the 1930s, Charles de Gaulle defended Richelieu and attacked the French military for adopting, based on the experience of the First World War, une doctrine a priori of static defense. From the perspective of raison d’État, military action can never be constructed a priori. Nor can military action be ruled out a priori.
The peril of the present application of raison d’État is that, unlike in Richelieu’s era, war creates great media passions. In the coming weeks, expect to see political pundits clamor for more strikes, and in the absence of more strikes write columns about how Trump has no Syria strategy. To hold off these passions, and recover proportionality in the use of force, Trump must show fortitude: this far into Syria, but no further.