CANBERRA – U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the leaders of countries with 14,000 nuclear weapons, including 1,800 ready for instant launch on presidential authorization. Both pursue “America/Russia first” policies to make their country great again. But only one of the two countries has a string of military bases and hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in distant hot spots circling the globe. Over the past two decades, only one has threatened, bombed, attacked, invaded and forcibly removed leaders of many other countries.
Of the two leaders, only one is widely believed, including by his own citizens, to be paranoid, volatile, erratic, inconsistent, bombastic, vulgar, shallow and a morally compromised individual. He can be moved by TV images of suffering children to bomb a country but bans their people — the same suffering children — from coming to his own country as desperate refugees. Only one —but not the same one — pursues a coherent foreign policy informed by long-term strategic purpose.
This raises a key puzzle. Both countries are engaged in the Syrian conflict, which is a tangled mess of internal, regional and global conflict parties and patrons. They offer contrasting narratives of heinous incidents. Chemical weapons were used in an attack on Khan Sheikhun on April 4. Trump blames the Syrian Air Force. Putin dismisses this as a self-serving fabrication and claims that chemical weapons stored at a rebel-held base were released after a Syrian strike.
Putin calls for an independent international investigation to establish facts and culpability. Instead Trump hits Syria with almost five dozen cruise missiles. Western leaders largely back the U.S. strikes, Americans are jubilant at throwing off the Obama-era strategic restraint and most Western analysts buy into the Trump narrative of enforcing international law against the use of chemical weapons, with the U.S. once again setting the world’s moral compass. When CNN host Fareed Zakaria gushed that in this one act “Trump became president,” he was not doing irony to indicate that bombing other countries has become a necessary rite of passage for a modern American leader. Zakaria was expressing genuine adoration of the Dear Leader.
Could the discrepancy be greater between what most Americans believe about Trump’s leadership credentials and individual morality, and their support of him as the champion of international law and global norms? Or between the record of U.S. international behavior and Western support of America being the international law enforcement sheriff?
The long history of U.S. presidents dissembling about confused incidents to launch or escalate wars includes the notorious 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident in the Vietnam War and allegations of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to invade Iraq in 2003 and capture and execute Saddam. In Syria itself, with respect to the chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, 2013, Seymour Hersh concluded that President Barack Obama, like President George W. Bush in Iraq in 2003, had cherry-picked facts and intelligence, presenting assumptions as facts and omitting important intelligence pointing to jihadis’ capability to mount a chemical weapon attack. Trump effectively followed the policy of “bomb first, prove later” —exactly the sequence Bush adopted in Iraq in 2003 to commit the greatest geopolitical blunder since World War II.
The requirement for proof before punishment doesn’t have an opt-out clause. Incomprehensibly, Trump of all people — with his known penchant for making up facts — is exempt from providing rock solid proof of Assad’s culpability.
As in murder mysteries, it is always worth asking: Who benefits? The risks of inviting U.S. intervention by using chemical weapons in an inconsequential battle far outweighed any possible military gains for the regime. Andrew Wilkie, who in 2003 as an Australian intelligence analyst famously questioned the dominant narrative on Iraq’s WMD and is now a parliamentarian, asks why Assad would use chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhun. For rebels, the risk-reward calculus is reversed in provoking U.S. intervention. Such cynicism is usually a better guide than naive credulity to understanding Middle Eastern politics.
Richard Butler, a former U.N. chief weapons inspector in Iraq, is unequivocal: “No evidence for the U.S. claim that Syria bombed Khan Sheikhun with chemical weapons has been provided.” Until then, “it is not possible to accept the claim. And, there are abundant reasons, from past experience, and a good deal of logic to support skepticism about it. The action by the U.S. was an act of aggression, violating international law.”
BBC News lists the dizzying record of policy flip-flops and U-turns within 24 hours. Longer-term major policy reversals include warning Obama in 2013 not to attack Syria. We cannot even be confident that Trump’s current Cabinet personnel will still be in office next year. This “mercurial” president can on an unchecked whim fire almost a thousand nuclear weapons at any country within minutes. The surge of popularity following strikes on Syria will embolden him to choose robust military action over caution and strengthen his disdain for constitutional fetters on using military force, let alone any restraints of international law. And Western leaders —who, unlike Trump, are mostly responsible leaders —have welcomed this turn of events.
The majority of Western leaders could do with a crash course in Geopolitics 101 and Nuclear Politics 101. On the first, every country has a core of vital interests over which it will go to war. The vital interests of major powers include territory and friendly regimes in neighboring countries. China will not tolerate a potentially hostile regime on its border with Korea. America would not tolerate one in Canada or Mexico, or Russia along its borders with Europe.
On the second, unlike wars using conventional weapons, with nuclear wars not just the conflict parties but the whole world will be totally destroyed. So why exactly is the Western world cheering the transformation of Trump into a wartime president who can indulge his authoritarian instincts to the fullest “to amass, consolidate and concentrate power”?
The self-interest of all countries — Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia included — requires them to counsel caution and restraint, not applaud adventurism based on gut instincts; to encourage policy consistency and reliability, not erratic unpredictability; to strengthen legal restraints and institutional enforcement mechanisms to check unilateral, aggressive and other norm-violating behavior by all major powers; and to require investigation and evidence before action is taken, not afterward.
To return to the key puzzle: Why should we entrust world peace in the quality of decision-making of Trump rather than Putin? Second, for most countries, which breach of international law and norms is worse: use of chemical weapons by either party inside Syria, or the unilateral use of military force by a major power against a sovereign state?
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.