Streetwise Professor

April 7, 2017

Trump, Putin, and the Tomahawk Chop

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:14 pm

President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base that was allegedly the launching point of a sarin attack on a town in the Idlib  Governate. My initial take is like Tim Newman’s: although the inhumanity in Syria beggars description, getting involved there is foolish and will not end well.

The Syrian conflict is terrible, but Syria makes the snake pit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look hospitable.

Further, the politics of Syria (both internally, and in the region) make the intrigues of Game of Thrones seem like child’s play by comparison. So I agree with Tim:

Every course of action I can think of other than “fuck ’em” has an almost zero chance of succeeding in its aims and a very high chance of making things worse.

. . . .

It’s not through moral principle that I am saying this, it is from practicality based on fourteen years of recent, bloody experience: Assad is a monster, the Russian government is showing the world exactly what they are like by backing him, and the Syrian people are suffering terribly, but there is nothing – nothing – we can do about it. It is a terrible indictment on the state of the world, but a policy of “fuck the lot of ’em” is the only workable one on the table right now. It’s high time our leaders started taking it seriously.

To put it slightly differently. Good intentions mean nothing. Results and consequences do. I am at a loss to think of any policy with results and consequences that accord with good intentions. Indeed, it almost inevitable that any major military intervention would not save Syrian lives but would cost American ones.

Truth be told, given the devastation wreaked on children, women, and men in Syria by bombs, shells, small arms and even throat-slashing blades, chemical weapons do not represent a quantum shift in the horribleness of the Syrian war. Dead is dead, and periodic use of chemical weapons does not materially affect the amount of dying that is going on. Assad–and the Islamists he is fighting–have killed and maimed far more innocent civilians with conventional weapons than with chemical ones.  The use of chemical weapons does not represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the war, which was already a total war waged without restraint against civilians by all sides (would that there were only two sides in Syria).

Insofar as Trump’s action is concerned, it is best characterized as a punitive strike. And as punitive strikes go, it is modest. It bears more similarity to Clinton strikes in Iraq (e.g., Desert Fox) than Reagan’s Operation El Dorado Canyon in 1986, which put the fear of god into Gaddafi: a 2000 pound bomb dropped near one’s tent has a tendency to do that. In contrast, Thursday’s Tomahawk detonations wouldn’t have disturbed Assad’s sleep in the slightest, let alone put him in mortal danger.

The record of such punitive actions in curbing the misbehavior of bad actors like Saddam or even Gaddafi is hardly encouraging, but at least the downside (to the US) of such indulgences of the Jupiter Complex is rather limited. The concern is that the raid turns out to be ineffectual in moderating Assad’s behavior and leads to Trump to escalate, and to make regime change–rather than a change of regime behavior–the objective. The neocons are celebrating and baying for more: that should be a cause for serious concern.

And I don’t think that this was exclusively about Syria, or even primarily so. The Tomahawks might have landed in Syria, but in a very real sense they were aimed at North Korea.  It is significant that Trump launched the attack while Chinese premier Xi was still digesting the steak he had eaten with the president.

Russia is clearly processing the message. The Russians are obviously angered. One would think that this puts paid to the Trump is Putin’s bitch narrative. But that would assume sanity on the part of the left and the Never Trumpers, who are anything but sane.

The prospects for some rapprochement between the US and Russia were already on life support, now they appear to be dead and buried. This reinforces a point I’ve made for months: that if Putin really did think that a Trump presidency would be better for him than a Clinton one, he made a grave miscalculation. This event proves that Trump is predictably unpredictable, and that he is completely capable of a volte face at a moment’s notice. The word I used was “protean”, and the decision to fire off a barrage of cruise missiles after months-years, in fact-of criticizing the idea of American intervention in Syria is about as protean as you get.

This points to a broader message. For all his alleged tactical acumen, Putin has stumbled from one strategic blunder to another. It is highly unlikely that Russian involvement, whatever it was, materially impacted the US election: its impact has been exaggerated for purely partisan and psychological reasons. It is also highly unlikely that any Russian meddling in European elections will sway them in favor of pro-Putin candidates.

But Russia has paid a steep price for these equivocal gains: Russian actions have created political firestorms not just in the US but in Europe that have actually increased Russian isolation. Hysteria in America about Russian meddling in US politics is vastly overblown, and has been ginned up for partisan reasons, but that is irrelevant as a practical matter: it has made the US-Russia relationship more adversarial than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and that works to Russia’s detriment.

His support for Assad in Syria has had similar effects. Yes, Putin achieved his immediate objective: Assad has survived, and looks likely to prevail. But Russia has only cemented its pariah status. The chemical attack makes it even more than a pariah. For what? Syria’s strategic value is minimal.

Indeed, the chemical attack is not just a crime, but a blunder, and puts Putin and Russia in an even worse spot. The action appears so militarily unnecessary and politically counterproductive that like Scott Adams, it raises doubts in my mind as to whether Assad actually ordered it. (The alternative explanations include a rogue general or a false flag carried out by the opposition.) But this is largely irrelevant: Assad is almost universally blamed, and as his stalwart defender, Putin and Russia have been deemed guilty of being accessories to and enablers of what is just as universally considered a war crime. By going all in for Assad, Putin made himself vulnerable to this. (That might provide a Machiavellian motive for Assad’s action: maybe he thought that the chemical attack would bind Putin even more closely to him.)

So by intervening in Syria, and defending Assad even in the aftermath of a widely reviled chemical attack, what has Putin gained? Yes, he had the satisfaction of showing Obama (and in his mind, the US as a whole) to be feckless, all grandiose talk and no action. He could claim to have reversed Russia’s retreat from the Middle East. He could assert that Russia is back and must be reckoned with in world affairs. He apparently experienced great personal satisfaction as a result of these accomplishments.

But viewed more soberly, these gains are more than offset by losses on the other side of the ledger. Russia is isolated, distrusted, feared, and reviled. It’s not entirely fair, but it should have been predictable. Moreover, nothing that Putin has done has improved what the Soviets called the correlation of forces. Indeed, although Russia has rejuvenated its military to some degree, other elements of national power (relative to the US) have slipped since 2008, and a Trump presidency will almost certainly erase the relative change in military power that occurred during Russian rearmament and the American sequester.

The simple fact is that other than in nuclear weapons, Russia cannot compete with the US, let alone the entire west. By achieving limited victories in strategic backwaters like Syria, all Putin has succeeded in doing is goading the US and the west into viewing him as a threat and sparking a competition that he can’t win.

But Putin has staked a great deal on Syria, in terms of both national and personal prestige. He is not the kind of man to back down and lose face after putting down such a stake. For his part, after claiming benign indifference to who rules Syria, the protean Trump has reversed course, and in so doing has put his own reputation on the line over who rules there, or at least how the man who rules there behaves. That is a combustible mix, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

But I am sure of how things will not turn out. Sore election losers’ dystopian fantasy of Trump selling out to Putin will never become reality. In fact, the reverse is more likely. Indeed, this could develop into a reversal of Reagan-Gorbachev. Then, two bitter antagonists found enough common ground to come to an understanding and ratchet down Cold War tensions. Now, two alleged members of a mutual admiration society are likely to find themselves in an increasingly antagonistic relationship, in yet further proof of my axiom that if you want to find the truth, you could do far worse than to invert elite conventional wisdom.



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  1. Putin might consider making enemies out of the West again a plus. He needs to sell to the Russian people an existential threat to the Mother Russia. It’s essential to his survival.

    Comment by tegla — April 7, 2017 @ 11:33 pm

  2. In an age where almost nobody seems capable of the most elementary critical thinking, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at the number of people who have uncritically accepted the allegation that Assad attacked a bunch of Syrian civilians using Sarin. It could be true, I suppose, but it seems distinctly unlikely to me. Heavens, surely everyone has learned over the past few months that the American Securitate (the so-called Intelligence Community) is corrupt, untrustworthy, and not remotely devoted to the interests of the USA.. So why the hell believe them now?

    Comment by dearieme — April 8, 2017 @ 8:17 am

  3. results, so far:

    1) Shmuck Schumer delivered a speech on the Senate floor – supporting President Trump’s action

    2) Syrian jets took off from the same airport that was bombed; previous reports indicated that the Tomahawks were not designed to blow up the runway

    3) Roosha has announced that it “saved” its Growler system (which includes anti-missile capabilities) for better things

    4) Putler has announced nixo-billy on the previous “deconflicting line” designed to avoid conflicts between US and Rooshan aircraft

    I can provide links on request, but it’s all over the news.

    The missiles cost about $1 million per missile. Reports indicate that the missiles “loitered” over the area for about an hour before they struck – simultaneously – at the various specific targets on the base. The accuracy is within 1 meter.

    Assad had a secular regime in place, in which even Christians were protected. Assad himself is not a muzzie.

    The turkey-necked Assad is a thug. Putler is a thug. So what’s the point of this violence on the part of Assad and Putler?

    Newman is right.

    Also – we now have a prez who, unlike Jug-Ears Obongo, has some balls, instead of “strategic do-nothing” and a bunch of hot air.

    It turns out that Susan Rice lied – once again – and so did Kerry, about their fantastic chemical weapons deal with Syria.

    The US has demonstrated amazing and lethal pinpoint technology.

    That gives Putler, China and the Fat Boy in North Korea, who promised to use “devastating force” (is that like the “mother of all battles”?), and the rest, much to think about.

    Comment by elmer — April 8, 2017 @ 9:00 am

  4. @dearieme

    The reports have been that the chemical attack was done by fixed-wing aircraft.

    The only fixed-wing aircraft in town are Syrian and Rooshan.

    Comment by elmer — April 8, 2017 @ 9:02 am

  5. I bet it was Hillary and the neocons who launched the chemical weapons.

    Comment by aaa — April 8, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

  6. @elmer: but what are the reports worth? One chump claimed to have seen a chemical bomb dropping, as if one could recognise what’s inside a bomb from the outside. One explanation offered, by the Russians I think, was that a terrorist ammo dump was bombed with conventional bombs, and it turned out that the terrorists had stored their chemical weapons there, hence the deaths.

    And how many deaths? Fake photos from the Middle East are ten a penny; are these ones real? Why should I think so?

    Apparently there’s strong evidence that the stuff that did the damage wasn’t sarin. Then again, fixed wing aircraft could be “imports” from some Sunni country or even Israel. Who the hell knows?

    To me three points stick out. (i) It was not remotely in Assad’s interest to launch a chemical attack, so until there’s good evidence to the contrary any sane man should assume he didn’t. Note that in contrast to the case of Trump, it’s pretty clear what Assad’s motives are; he wishes to stay alive and in power. (ii) If Susan Rice were to be believed (I did say “if”) Assad couldn’t have done it since he’d handed over or destroyed his chemical weapons long ago. (iii) Nothing the US Securitate says is remotely trustworthy anyway. They lie as instinctively as a Clinton, and that’s saying something.

    Comment by dearieme — April 9, 2017 @ 5:33 am

  7. @dearieme

    >>One explanation offered, by the Russians I think, was that a terrorist ammo dump was bombed with conventional bombs

    Remember all the mutually contradicting explanations offered by the Russians for the downing of the MH-17?

    If fake photos from the Middle East are ten a penny, explanations offered by the Russians are ten a kopeck at peak prices.

    Comment by Ivan — April 9, 2017 @ 6:15 am

  8. Here’s a voice of sanity.

    Comment by dearieme — April 9, 2017 @ 6:37 am

  9. Same chap, different occasion.

    Comment by dearieme — April 9, 2017 @ 6:43 am

  10. Come on guys, don’t you know that only 23 out of the 59 Tomahawks launched reached the targets? None other than the Russian General Staff’ spokesman Gen. Konashenkov, an officer and a gentleman, with the most honest look on his face and the most impeccable manners has said it.

    Comment by LL — April 9, 2017 @ 9:42 am

  11. And, BTW, for fairness sake, the ‘neocons’, judging by the articles and posts on National Review site, are hardly cheering this, but rather concerned.

    – as well as few others.

    Comment by LL — April 9, 2017 @ 9:46 am

  12. Prof: You miss one essential element.
    The Tomahawks bind Russia and Iran ever tighter. That’s material and significant.

    Comment by Simple Simon — April 9, 2017 @ 9:54 am

  13. My gut reaction was same as dearieme’s – that this was a false flag.

    In the week leading up to the incident, we’d had clear indication from the administration that their truck was with ISIS, and that they’d leave Assad alone.

    And then some sort of chemical incident is said to happen, and there is a camera crew on-hand to film it all, and the blame is immediately put on Assad dropping sarin on toddlers.

    So – Trump gets played, reacts with his limbic system, missiles are fired off, Assad is now back in the cross-hairs, and the neo-cons break out the champagne. ‘Mission Accomplished’.

    I’ll wait until more concrete reports by investigators come out about what happened before forming a judgement. But the film line that comes to mind is that of Kevin Costner in ‘Thirteen Days’: ‘I’m your political advisor, and I’m giving you political analysis here. This is a setup.’

    Remember the chemical attack in Ghouta, 2013, and how that was played up as being ‘casus belli’ before confirmation came through of what had actually happened. Remember also that all of Assad’s chemical weapons were taken from him and destroyed after that incident, even though as it turned out it wasn’t the Syrians who attacked with chemical weapons.

    Some powerful and ruthless people are itching to get rid of Assad. They are so desperate, they are willing to use the most vile religiously-inspired murderous psychopaths as ‘borrowed knives’ in order to get their way [I don’t think I’m exaggerating there – ISIS is the worst of the worst]. Once you’ve gone that far, what’s a few extra dead ‘extras’?

    What scares me most about this event is Trump’s firing off missiles because dead toddlers. Every two-cent scumbag in the world now knows that the President is vulnerable to emotional manipulation. Have an enemy? Get some appropriate pictures, get them into the press, point the bone at the guy you don’t like, and – ‘Bingo!’ – problem solved.

    The Iranians used the US army to get rid of their blood-enemy Saddam and win Iraq for the Shia. They did it by leaking the fake intel that the neo-cons wanted to hear about Saddam’s WMD programme [remember ‘Curveball’?], and by whispering the sweet nothings [‘marines will be met with bouquets!’] that they wanted to hear about a cakewalk [remember Chalabi]? The word is out: America’s political system and armed forces will do your bidding, so long as you press the right buttons in the right limbic system. And Americans themselves pay for the whole thing with American blood and American treasure.

    Where are the adults? Does no-one see this?

    I was stunned to hear the news on Friday morning. I’ve never been more fearful of a nuclear exchange.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 9, 2017 @ 10:07 am

  14. so this was all Wag the Dog?

    Shmuck Schumer praised Trump’s action.

    A Syrian man lashed out after being asked by a CNN reporter to criticize Donald Trump’s refugee ban.

    Anchor Brooke Baldwin attempted to make a point about acceptance of refugees while talking to Kassam Eid, who survived a 2013 chemical attack on Syria.

    Eid praised the President’s action in firing missiles at Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for chemical attacks against his citizens on Tuesday.

    ‘I didn’t see you in 2013. I didn’t see you raising your voice against President Obama’s inaction in Syria that made us refugees get kicked out of Syria.

    ‘If you really care about refugees, if you really care about helping us, please help us stay in our country.

    Comment by elmer — April 9, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

  15. Is this what happened, chronologically?
    31 Mar 2017 White House backs off regime change, McCain furious, launches a scheme.
    01 Apr 2017 Dr. Shajul Islam in Khan Sheikhoun receives shipments of gas masks.
    03 Apr 2017 Journalist feraskaram01 tweets about chemical weapon attack a day before it happens.
    04 Apr 2017 Alleged chemical weapon bombing occurs right on schedule.
    05 Apr 2017 Steve Bannon removed from NSC.
    06 Apr 2017 US bombs Syrian air base in retaliation for chemical attack.
    07 Apr 2017 ISIS and Al Qaida praise Trump’s bombing of Syria.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — April 9, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

  16. Imagine that you are a Putin and worried about losing your asset in the Oval Office. So you design an active measure: your Soviet-made planes (same kind that Syria uses) drop the chemical bombs, you make sure this is blamed on Syria, instruct your asset to make a limited, insignificant “retaliation strike”.

    1) your US asset gets to brag about being tough on brutal dictators: ratings boosted attention distracted from investigations
    2) your Syrian puppet becomes even more isolated and controllable
    3) you don’t even lose any hardware, as you know the details of the operation.

    How is this conspiracy theory worse than others?

    Comment by Ivan — April 10, 2017 @ 12:33 am

  17. “How is this conspiracy theory worse than others?” There’s no evidence that Trump is Putin’s creature.

    But if it were true, it demonstrates that it wasn’t Assad wot dunnit. Which is rather the point.

    Comment by dearieme — April 10, 2017 @ 9:20 am

  18. @dearieme
    “There’s no evidence that Trump is Putin’s creature.”

    As there is no evidence of a false-flag operation. Can’t judge anyone for having a gut feeling.

    Comment by Ivan — April 10, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

  19. I suspect that Trump-is-Putin’s-creature was a simple and ingenious invention to justify spying on Trump and his campaign.

    Comment by dearieme — April 11, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

  20. I’ll be that guy. Movie scene is from Raiders and not Temple of Doom. *cough* *shows himself the door*

    Comment by Dan — April 11, 2017 @ 1:17 pm

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