BEIJING – There has been a lot of dutiful hand-wringing in the United States after Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria. Many self-appointed strategists are happy to see the current president act with resolve on a key global issue.
The supportive comments in view of the show of military force ranged from “presidential” (CNN’s Fareed Zakaria), “beautiful” (CNBC’s Brian Williams) to “the right thing” (Anne-Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation).
Zakaria especially stood out by arguing “tonight Donald Trump became president of the United States.” He doesn’t seem to have said that ironically — as in, American presidents love to fire off a bunch of missiles (as if that’s an effective exercise of foreign policy).
Understood that way, what Trump has now done just follows a long line of folly from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But Zakaria was completely serious. He seriously thinks that’s presidential!
Before we all get ahead of ourselves, let’s call what it is — the “inept” doctrine. You see, the U.S. can now bomb a state on the basis that that state’s main ally has been, in the words of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson describing Russia, complicit or simply incompetent.
Speaking to H.R. McMaster, the U.S. national security adviser, he was referring to what he claimed was Russia’s inability to control Syrian President Bashar Assad.
This is chilling — and came as Trump was hosting Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
One wonders: Given Tillerson’s rationale, him being no foreign policy pro, will China now be classified as inept or complicit for failing to control North Korea’s missile testing?
And let’s just not worry about the inconvenient fact that the U.S. would have failed to meet the Tillerson test when it failed to stop Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, then the U.S.-backed Gulf policeman, from using chemical weapons that killed thousands of people in Halabja in 1988.
No one knows how Xi reacted to the attack on Syria while he visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago. He surely never expected to be told about such an event at dinner.
Steak and sole were on the menu, so too was chocolate cake and sorbet as Trump played host to Xi. The Chinese delegation had left less than two hours after dinner had started, around the same time that the 59 Tomahawk missiles, at $1 million apiece, were slamming into their targets.
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” Trump said as he announced the strike. The children of the Middle East have been enduring horrors for decades.
There are clearly children of a lesser god. If he is seeking retribution for the suffering of children, then Tomahawk shares should surge. Especially if it was a trial run for a strike on the Korean Peninsula.
Timing circumstances aside, some Chinese officials must have noted the complicit comment. For in Washington, what applies to Russia’s actions in Syria holds sway for Chinese presumed complicity, in North Korea.
It’s really a no-win situation for Beijing.
Option 1: If North Korea continues to test missiles that land in the Sea of Japan, then China is not doing its job.
Option 2: If North Korea desists, then the Chinese are doing what is expected of them and they shouldn’t receive any plaudits.
Let us not forget that North Korea — given its missile capabilities — is considered, by defense planners, to be of strategic interest to the U.S.
In contrast, Syria was — and is — not of similar strategic interest to the U.S.
So one cannot really be surprised about the Trump administration declaring that all options are on the table regarding North Korea.
Still, one wonders. Candidate Trump had suggested that he was open to dialogue with North Korea. This approach, judging by the rhetoric over the last week or so, seems to have been discarded.
But dialogue does have some merit. Sanctions clearly are not working. And Pyongyang will no doubt take the attack on Syria as justification for more missile testing, to bolster its own defenses.
The Chinese may well consider the current state of affairs between the U.S. and North Korea as a train crash about to happen unless someone slams on the brakes. Their warning will probably be dismissed as inept.
Now a U.S. Navy battle group has been diverted to waters off the Korean Peninsula. The decision to redeploy the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and other vessels, who had been en route to Australia for a goodwill visit, provoked the usual warnings of “catastrophic consequences” from Pyongyang.
But familiarity should not breed contempt for the expressive language uttered by North Korea. Speculation over an imminent nuclear test is brewing.
North Korea will celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of its late founding leader on Saturday. A perfect opportunity to conduct a missile test as will be April 25, foundation day for its army.
Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist with three decades of experience covering global affairs. He is currently based in Beijing.
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