During the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger developed the “Madman Theory.” Nixon’s goal was to act so erratically that the North Vietnamese would never know his next move — they would think him a madman. President Donald J. Trump is that strategy’s extreme reincarnation, as evidenced by his recent missile strike on Syria. Unfortunately, both that strategy and the missile strike are misguided on every possible level.
I am not the first to ascribe Trump’s behavior to a conscious employment of the madman theory — many have argued that his entire campaign and subsequent presidency have been assiduously orchestrated since its outset. But even in the highly unlikely event that his whole act is a façade and he actually knows what he’s doing, there is no benefit for our country to have an ostensibly erratic president.
It is not in our best interest to keep our adversaries guessing — not with Nixon, not with Trump. A clear and consistent strategy best ensures that our enemies are kept in check.
My most substantial criticism of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is the infamous “red line” bluff in Syria. We promised that we would take action if Syrians used chemical weapons, yet hardly batted an eye when they did, a lack of action that thereby damaged the United States’ reputation. The message sent to Syria was that our red lines mean nothing.
Trump damaged our reputation by doing exactly the opposite: attacking without warning. His foreign policy is shaping up to be as capricious as Obama’s was ineffective. Trump issued no “red line” to Syria, no caution to President Bashar al-Assad, nothing whatsoever to indicate that we would take military action against Syria following their use of chemical weapons.
Indeed, Syria had every reason to think we would not take action. Trump spent his presidential campaign arguing that Hillary Clinton would start a third world war through her hard-line stance in the Middle East. He has tweets dating back to 2013 criticizing Obama for wanting to take action, and both parties knew his whole alt-right constituency would be evaporated after such a strike on Syria (as they have).
Then Assad massacred 72 individuals April 4 and Trump decided to strike. Seventy-two dead is 72 too many, but without a red line set by Trump, the missile strike seems hasty ill thought-out.
As avid defenders of human rights, the United States must work to end the slaughter. The issue is not that we attacked, but why we attacked. Unfortunately, we had every reason to expect the Syrian government to gas its own citizens; they have done so in the past without consequences. Why would Assad stop that now, without any expectation that we would retaliate? And more importantly, what prompted Trump to change his mind and intervene?
I find it highly suspect that he was so moved by the pictures from the April 4 attack that he had a change of heart and altered the whole course of his foreign policy. The pictures from this attack are indistinguishable from those from 2013, yet Trump had an entirely different reaction to the pictures then, arguing that we had no business in Syria. .
There are several plausible reasons that explain Trump’s decision to attack: to dispel concerns about his ties with Russia and to appease the Democrats, among whom he has a 9 percent approval rating, or to appeal to establishment Republicans. But whatever the reason for his labile behavior, it is unlikely that it is his hidden sense of altruism.
What is so troubling is that there is no apparent goal for the missile attack. What Trump has envisaged for Syria’s future is opaque at best, other than that he intends to oust Assad. Will we continue lobbing missiles at Syria, issue threats and send more weapons and money to rebel groups? The attack appears to be a judgement made in haste as soon as Trump found an opportunity win the support of the country.
The way to prevent future atrocities committed by the Syrian government is not through snap judgements, but through calculated strategy. A bevy of problems could arise from such a strike. If Assad keeps gassing his citizens, we will engulf ourselves in a war. If Russia responds, we create a geopolitical nightmare. And yet Assad continues to send planes out of the same airstrip that was bombed (albeit those planes have not since conducted more gas attacks) and Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have denounced the attack, warning of “severe consequences.”
In a young presidency with such a turbulent leader, it is of the utmost importance that we act consistently in our foreign policy decisions. Should something be done in response to the massacre in Syria? Absolutely, but Trump’s decision made seemingly on a whim to attack Assad’s regime with such little forewarning is a severe step in the wrong direction.
Grant Osborn is a College sophomore from Springfield, Ohio.