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How will Trump foreign policy evolve after U.S. strike on Syria?

April 7, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
What will be the fallout of a U.S. strike against a Syrian military base? And what signal does it send to world powers around the world? Former State Department official Sarah Sewall, retired Gen. John Allen, a former NATO commander, and retired Col. Andrew Bacevich of Boston University join Judy Woodruff for a discussion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return now to our top story, the U.S. attack on a Syrian airfield.

Late today, administration officials said they’d seek new sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

For more on the airstrikes and their effects, I’m joined by retired General John Allen. He was the top commander in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, and, in 2014, he became the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition Against ISIS. Sarah Sewall served as undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights during the Obama administration. She’s now at Johns Hopkins University. And Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University.

And we welcome all three of you to the program.

General Allen, I’m going to start with you. Was this a smart move by President Trump, his administration?

GEN. JOHN ALLEN, (RET.), Former Commander, NATO forces in Afghanistan: Judy, I think it was. I think it was warranted.

The crime of attacking innocent civilians with a nerve agent puts the Assad regime in a position where this kind of an action is absolutely justified. I have been calling for this kind of an action for a long time, and I believe it was justified.

And it wasn’t just a message to Bashar al-Assad. It’s a message to his Russian patrons that the United States is just not going to tolerate this kind of action from him any longer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Bacevich, your view? Was this the right thing?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH, (RET.), Boston University: Well, what is the thing? What is the action?

If indeed, as some people suggest, this is a one-off event, then my guess is, a week from now, we won’t even be talking abut it, and it will quickly be forgotten.

If, as some people suggest, this shows a more assertive Trump administration, that somehow we’re going to ratchet up the pressure on the Assad regime, trying to produce regime change, then I would be very much interested in hearing more about how that is going to occur and, beyond that, if and when it occurs, if Assad is forced out, then what?

What do we think the United States will inherit, and what will the United States do with that inheritance? Recalling the situation after regime change in Iraq and Libya, you know, those seem to be the reasonable questions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sarah Sewall, how do you gauge what happened?

SARAH SEWALL, Former State Department Official: Well, it’s very difficult to know right now, Judy.

We don’t know whether this will fall into the category of a symbolic, pinprick strike that had no marginal — had no meaningful effect, or whether this could be the beginning of something that gets us much more deeply embroiled, whether it’s similar to the no-fly zones that we created in Southern and Northern Iraq after the first Desert Storm war, or whether it’s like the Kosovo campaign that was designed to produce a negotiated solution that we thought would take days, and instead took weeks, or whether it could be like the Libya intervention, where we were nominally protecting citizens, but we ended up creating a much more difficult terrorist threat throughout the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, General Allen, it is the case that we don’t know yet how effective this is, do we? We’re waiting to find out.

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: Well, I would say a couple of things, Judy, to the other points that have been made.

The administration is going to have to give us a sense of what their policy is. This is obviously a change from the previous administration. And military action without political context is often just ineffectual, there’s no purpose for it.

And it’s a dangerous road to get on, as the other commentators have indicated. So, it would be very helpful for us to understand what policy changes have created this strategy within which military action like this can occur.

But I think it’s been an important event, because it’s not just a very important signal to Bashar al-Assad and to President Putin. There are others around the world who should have taken very significant attention or made significant points of paying attention to this strike, Kim Jong-un, for example.

And the president just completed, by all accounts, a successful summit with President Xi Jinping of China, and we don’t — we find ourselves in an environment where there’s a similar relationship there, where there is a patron and there is a client.

And I know it has not escaped the attention of President Xi that the nuclear saber-rattling of Kim Jong-un has attracted the attention of President Trump.

And so, having held Bashar al-Assad accountable for this, we need to pay attention to Northeast Asia about a more activist United States in this regard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Colonel Bacevich, what about that? I mean, this does send a signal to the rest of the world that this president is prepared to act.

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Well, I think it’s important to reflect on how this decision came to be made, at least how we understand that it came to be made.

A week ago, the president was largely indifferent to events in Syria. It appears that, when he saw the videotapes of the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, he was outraged, and then basically, in about a 48-hour period, he went from being indifferent to deciding we had to attack Syria.

And I have to say that strikes me as not so much a change in policy, but really a change in impulses. We have an impulsive president. We see little in our president that suggests that he acts after serious reflection.

And so, yes, indeed, if somebody like Kim Jong-un in North Korea is reflecting on the implications of the Syrian attack, are the implications one that would cause Kim Jong-un to be more prudent, or does he say, holy cow, holy cow, we got a crazy guy on the other end of this relationship?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sarah Sewall, how much does it matter whether there was a thought-through policy that went into that?


SARAH SEWALL: It matters enormously. It really does, Judy, because if they don’t know what their endgame is, if they don’t know what their goals are, then they don’t know what their next steps are.

I mean, let’s look at the situation from a couple of different angles. First of all, if all we’re doing is a red line on chemical weapons, that’s not immaterial, but it’s really not the point. The point is that Assad is a butcher.

And so the question becomes for the civilians, do I care if I’m being gassed or I’m being hit by barrel bombs? The problem is still there.

Second, look at the Russian issue. Now we have got a much more commingled battlefield with higher risk of actual escalation. Do we really want that? Is that a smart move? What happens if something does escalate?

Third, look at the order of battle on the ground. We talk about whether or not you can use force to get a political settlement. Who are the biggest, most powerful actors among the rebels? They’re al-Qaida and ISIS.

So, even if we’re willing to commit to try to use enough force to get a negotiated settlement, we’re actually at risk of strengthening the hand of the rebels that we have nominally vowed to fight in the war on terror.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General John Allen, this sounds — what Sarah is saying sounds like a lot of the arguments that we — President Obama perhaps used in the decision not to go in and attack after that chemical incident in 2013.

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: Well, Sarah is right.

And it’s good to see Sarah again. She was terrific at State while she was there.

Look, the environment was very different in 2013. I think we’d be in a very different world today if we had struck them. The Russians weren’t on the ground. The moderate Syrian opposition could have made significant — could have had significant value out of that strike. It would have changed Bashar al-Assad’s calculus with respect to what he could do, and it would have set, I think, the conditions for a more fruitful discussion about the political transition that would have removed him from power.

And the Obama administration and the Trump administration, I believe, are not intent, ultimately, on regime collapse, but simply the removal of Bashar al-Assad and remaining and having much of that regime remain intact, which could, in fact, continue to govern in some manner.

What we have got to be very careful about is looking for all the reasons why the United States shouldn’t act. And there are plenty. We have heard them tonight. But, at some point, the United States, I believe, has a moral obligation to act.

And selling short the decision to make this attack, I think, in some respects, doesn’t take into account some very, very serious strategic minds that are at work right now. We have a secretary of defense, we have a chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and we have a national security adviser and a secretary of state who are very serious thinkers and strategic leaders.

And I think that they are advising the president about this strike, but I think there’s much more behind this in the context of a strategy that emerges ultimately from a policy.


GEN. JOHN ALLEN: And I think we need to take a moment and look for that articulation by the White House of what our policy is going to be and what that strategy will be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as we wait for that, Andrew Bacevich, what do you see as the next step here, whether this was the right or the wrong move? What happens now?

COL. ANDREW J. BACEVICH: Well, I think the point’s been well made.

We have not heard anything that remotely resembles a strategy from this president or from this administration. We now have the president’s response to the first crisis that he has faced. And the response is one to opt for military force, which, of course, has become exceedingly routine in the way we approach the world.

But this conversation, I think, reveals the difficulty. We don’t know what is the context in which this decision was made. And I think we desperately need to hear that context, to hear some vision, to get a sense of strategy.

I’m not particularly encouraged by the fact that three out of the four people that General Allen just ticked off are generals. It strikes me that that is suggestive of a mind-set that is likely to opt for force as the preferred response to almost any situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sarah Sewall, I’m going to ask you to comment on that, if you want to, but also to share with us, what do you think happens next? I mean, do we just wait and see whether Assad attacks again with chemical weapons? We know that there was a report today that jets — his jets took off and attacked a rebel base in Homs today.

SARAH SEWALL: Here’s my concern, Judy, that, in the absence of a clear world view and an articulated strategy, it’s very easy for individual uses of force and for high-minded rhetoric to begin to just escalate within its own echo chamber.

And so I think it’s really hard to predict where we’re going to go from here. It’s not comforting to me that this feels reflexive and improvisational, rather than really thought out and strategic.

Since I don’t know what the goal is, I don’t know where we’re likely to go next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In just a few seconds, what about Colonel Bacevich’s point that this is mostly generals advising the president, retired generals?

SARAH SEWALL: I do think that, as a matter of foreign policy, it is essential that civilian leadership and diplomats balance the advice from military officials.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in five seconds, General Allen, on that point?

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: Yes. I got to — I got something to say on this.

Generals know an awful lot about fighting. They also know a lot about the consequences of war. And I know these generals. And they’re going to give the president their best advice. And they understand American power.

And if we chose to use military force, it wasn’t because former generals forced the president into that option. These are great strategic thinkers who understand all about American power. And they fully understand the consequences of the use of military force.

So, I would be careful about assuming, because they are former generals, that they immediately went to a reflex to use military force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to have to leave it there.

General John Allen, Colonel Andrew Bacevich, Sarah Sewall, we thank you.

GEN. JOHN ALLEN: Thanks, Judy.