Trump’s Wag the Dog Strategy on Syria Helps No One – Not Even Himself

Donald Trump

by William Hartung

After a few days of threatening tweets and tough guy rhetoric, Donald Trump went ahead and instructed the U.S. military to bomb Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians there that has been widely attributed to the Assad regime.

It could have been worse–the strikes focused only on three major sites, all allegedly linked to Assad’s chemical weapons capacity. And Secretary of Defense James Mattis suggested that the bombings were a one-off, at least for now. Trump, of course, sent a conflicting signal, suggesting more to come if Assad doesn’t come to heel. No Russian personnel were impacted, and despite Vladimir Putin’s harsh verbal response, it doesn’t appear that the strikes–if they indeed are over and not the first of many–will lead to a military confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria.

So what did Trump think he was doing? Does he believe that lobbing cruise missiles will change Assad’s behavior? Or was his real intention in ordering the strikes to shift the subject away from investigations of the conduct of himself and his associates whose findings are becoming more incriminating by the day? I vote for the “wag the dog” theory, short-hand for taking military action to distract attention from domestic troubles, and popularized in the 1997 movie of the same name.

This is not to suggest that all of the supporters of the strikes share Trump’s views. Many saw them as a proportionate response to Assad’s chemical weapons use, and a way to redraw the mythical “red line” that President Obama was viewed as having set and then withdrawn in 2013. This point can be argued among rational people, but it’s not why Trump decided to bomb Syria, despite his words to that effect. The tighter the legal noose closes around Trump’s neck, the more likely he is to take dramatic steps to divert public attention, whether it is slapping tariffs on China or engaging in a high profile bombing in Syria or one of the other six countries in which the United States is currently at war.

There are real things that the United States can and should do to stop the suffering of the Syrian people. Bombing their country, under whatever rationale, is not one of them. The Trump administration could let Syrian refugees into the United States in large numbers. It could contribute generously to United Nations humanitarian aid efforts. And, most importantly, it could put on a full court press to convince its European allies and other parties to the conflict to craft a peace agreement.

Developing a workable peace agreement for Syria is a huge challenge, but it is the only thing that is likely to make a difference. Trump has handicapped himself in this regard by tarnishing whatever reputation the United States may have had as a peacemaker through pushing his Muslim ban, attacking the Iran nuclear deal, backing the reckless and counterproductive policies of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and putting forward an aggressive nuclear policy that calls for new, more “usable” nuclear weapons. In addition, appointing hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to his administration, while neglecting to even appoint ambassadors to dozens of countries and international bodies around the world, certainly doesn’t help matters.

The one encouraging note to come out of the Syria bombings is the growing support for the notion that Congress should finally exert its constitutional responsibility to approve or veto presidential decisions to go to war. Recently, 44 U.S. senators voted to stop U.S. refueling and targeting assistance for Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen. And the proposed Syria strikes drew calls from 88 members of the House and a number of prominent senators on both sides of the aisle to hold off on the bombing pending Congressional approval–or, ideally, disapproval. This trend towards exerting Congressional authority over war making needs to continue and grow if the United States is ever to pull back on the policy of perpetual war that has dominated U.S. foreign policy throughout this century.

As for Trump, in an era of short attention spans, 24-hour cable news, and ubiquitous social media, whatever political boost he may get from the Syria strikes will be short-lived. The immediate challenge will be to push back against uber-hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) who want Trump to double down on the bombing strategy in Syria, as well as some in the mainstream press and the Democratic party who equate military strikes with “doing something,” an approach that Emma Ashford of the Cato Institute articulately debunked in her recent op-ed in the New York Times. The goal should be to make the Syria strikes the beginning of the end of the United States’ all-military-all-the-time policy towards the Middle East, not a step towards further escalation.

William Hartung

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.



  1. Of course, Assad should be taken before the International Criminal Court, but since neither the US nor Russia accept its jurisdiction, that’s problematical.

  2. The vicious civil war in Syria should be terminated as soon as possible. Displacing the Assad regime is no guarantee whatever, of achieving stability in that war-torn country. Witness the continuing chaos in Libya.

  3. If Assad did this then he deserves what he gets. However if for a moment we look at the counterfactual where the rebel groups ( sponsored by the West) who have much to gain by a prolongation of the war did this with or without help from MI6 – as alleged by the Russians, then I am really appalled. Should we not expect a higher standard from the civilized countries of the West?

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