Could Donald Trump see a missile strike at Syria as a way to distract attention from his domestic political troubles? He would not be the first leader to use foreign conflict this way.
In Washington, the US President is beset by intractable difficulties. The investigation by Robert Mueller into his campaign’s links to Russia is coming ever closer to him personally, as the raid on the offices of his lawyer shows.
Senior Republicans – most recently House Speaker Paul Ryan – are quitting, suggesting that even those with principles flexible enough to collaborate with Mr Trump’s administration fear what the future holds. The President threatens to sack Mr Mueller, but the constitutional crisis that would produce might make things worse.
Mr Trump’s support remains solid, with about 40 per cent of voters consistently approving of his performance. But despite their full-throated backing for his promise to drain the Washington swamp, even they may find it hard to accept a president who defied US laws and conventions to sack an investigator. Mr Trump may feel the best way to distract them is to take what appears to be strong action in Syria. The problem is that the US lacks a strategic purpose in that benighted country.
Washington and its allies would clearly like to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, the dictator guilty of many crimes, the latest of which appears to be the use of poison gas against his own people. Recent attacks in the Syrian town of Douma obviously cross the red line. So appalling are these war crimes that they seem to demand a response other than belligerent tweets and name-calling from the leader of the free world (Dr Assad is “an animal”, Mr Trump says).
But what sort of response, and what does Mr Trump hope to achieve with it? The situation is complex. Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey all have a greater or lesser interest in this conflict. Washington, with its allies, is presumably mulling a surgical military response which might cause damage to Syrian installations and personnel without harming a single Russian soldier, diplomat or adviser. Let us all hope they are very careful indeed, since what they are contemplating is both an empty gesture and phenomenally dangerous in this inflamed environment.
The US appears to be out of ideas when it comes to removing Dr Assad, and has no clear plan for who or what might replace him. Meanwhile, Washington has increasingly fewer genuine allies in the region. Its supposed NATO ally, Turkey, which has deep interests in who runs Syria, is undermining it at every turn.
For Turkey, Syria is next door. It is full of Kurds, whom the Turkish regime regards as terrorists. For Russia and Turkey, neither of which cares much for human rights, Dr Assad, murderous and vile despot though he is, is a safe bet. He will keep the lid on things and cause his neighbours and patrons as little trouble as possible. Nothing the US can offer will achieve that.
But for Mr Trump, reality TV star and President, a few missiles fired from thousands of kilometres away will, if they don’t hit anyone important and precipitate a global conflict, make good TV and create a public relations smokescreen that may last a few days. For this administration, that would be mission accomplished.
- A note from the editor – Subscribers can get Age editor Alex Lavelle’s exclusive weekly newsletter delivered to their inbox by signing up here: www.theage.com.au/editornote