America’s global credibility partially restored by air strike
US President Donald Trump’s unexpected attack on Syria’s al-Shairat airbase in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s sarin gas attack on his own citizens has changed the dynamic of Syria’s civil war and potentially its eventual outcome.
Trump’s attack sent a clear message not only to Assad, but to Russia and Iran, who are staunch supporters of Assad, and to North Korea, which have been testing the US’s resolve with its missile programme.
This one single salvo has repaired some of the US’s global credibility, which was tarnished by the Obama administration. At the same time, Trump’s attack imposed a new responsibility on the US to follow through with a well-thought-out strategy that stands a good chance of ending Syria’s horrific civil war and diminishing the North Korean threat.
Although finding solutions to these conflicts is extremely difficult, now that the US has become directly involved, Trump has no option but to try. I maintain that since all the parties involved, especially Russia, Iran and the Syrian rebels, seek an end to the conflict on certain terms, the Trump administration needs to consider their needs but follow a strategy based on Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy approach of “speak softly and carry a big stick”.
Trump’s order to attack a Syrian airbase while having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was also intended to send a clear message to the North Korean regime. Moreover, dispatching a naval strike group to the Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula sends an unambiguous message to China that it is time to rein in Pyongyang’s provocations, because the longer the conflict persists, the more complicated it becomes.
China’s main interest is to maintain, and even improve, its trade relations with the US. With some American incentives, China would more than likely take whatever steps are necessary to tame North Korea and prevent any confrontation between the US and North Korea that could precipitate regional upheaval, which China wants to avoid at any price.
The US today is in a better position than it has been in more than 16 years to re-establish its global credibility and moral and security responsibility. Trump’s unpredictability and his readiness to use force when necessary can be an asset, but it is no substitute for a sound and effective strategy – a strategy that offers carrots while carrying a big stick, with a clear objective always in sight.
Alon Ben-Meir, professor, international relations, Centre for Global Affairs, New York University