The Tomahawk volley attack, for all its ostentatious symbolism, served larger strategic purposes. It reminded a world without morality that there is still a shred of a rule or two: Do not use nerve gas on the battlefield or against civilians. The past faux redline from Obama, the systematic use of chlorine gas by Syria, and its contextualization by the Obama administration had insidiously eroded that old battlefield prohibition. Trump was right to seek to revive it.
The subsequent MOAB bomb strike in Afghanistan is useful against ISIS’s subterranean nests, and in signaling the Taliban and ISIS that the U.S. too can be unpredictable and has not quite written off its 16-year commitment. But as in the case of the Tomahawk strikes against Syria, it also fulfilled the larger purpose of reminding enemies, such as Islamic terrorists, North Korea, and Iran (which all stash weapons of destruction in caves and the like) that the U.S. is capable of anything.
The message reminds the world that the Obama administration’s “lead from behind,” “don’t do stupid sh**,” plastic red-button reset, Cairo Speech foreign policy followed no historical arc that bent anywhere. And the U.S. was previously on the wrong, not the right, side of both history and the traditions of U.S. bipartisan foreign policy — an aberration from the past, not a blueprint of the future.
Like Ronald Reagan, who, after Jimmy Carter’s managed declinism, shelled Lebanon, bombed Gaddafi, and invaded Grenada, Trump is trying to thread the needle between becoming bogged down somewhere and doing nothing.