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weapons use, and a way to redraw the mythical “red line” that President Obama was viewed as having set and then withdrawn in 2013.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. The obvious strategy of using false flags, lies and pretexts by the west in order to attack the weaker countries for the reasons of masking their own failures has become absurd and a joke for the rest of the world! In the long run thi strategy does not help Israel! So cut it out and get out of Syria and leave them alone now!

  2. Why the author asserted that the issue is real? What made him or similar writers so sure? Why every body rushes to accept that a chemical attack was carried out by Syrian government? Is this the real methodology of justice by civilized nations? Punishing for unproven crime? What would happen if they let investigations done? Was their missiles going to expire soon?
    Why the same powers which were supporting Saddam in war against Iran even didn’t issue a condemnation even when an entire city (Sardasht) was chemically attacked by him? For years the victimes were sent for treatment to European countries and they witnessed everything, even they approved the incidents many times but decided to stay silent! Now everybody issues condemnation for something before investigation?
    Is this the world order offered by western governments?

  3. Yes of course if Assad were this monster manufactured by the West, (He Is Not), he should be put to death in one of the following states that use the gas chamber,… Arizona, California, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri and Wyoming. But, it’s more like Trump, (sometimes, but not this time), driven by those who pull the strings, that is the Real Monster, as well as the Western ‘Lapdogs’ who follow. If Assad is killing ‘his own’, he is assisting the US, (& the hired killers) in doing the same thing & should be considered an Ally. I would leave you with the name Gen. Wesley Clark,…7 countries in 5 years!

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