Last Thursday, the Trump administration launched a military strike on a Syrian government air base in response to a chemical weapons attack that left dozens of civilians dead. The strike marks the first direct military action taken by the United States since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. The Obama administration, which committed to a strategy of selective engagement that prioritized U.S. interests, quickly backtracked on the possibility of intervention back in 2013.
The effects of violent intervention in Syria greatly relate to students. The displacement of Syrian refugees is an issue many of us are concerned and involved with, either personally or for humanitarian reasons, and the Trump administration’s latest decision will have substantial consequences.
Despite the recognizable differences between the two presidents, it seemed, for many years, that they agreed on at least one thing: The United States should not intervene in foreign conflicts, on humanitarian grounds or otherwise, unless its security interests are directly affected. In September 2013, Donald Trump tweeted, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” Moreover, throughout his presidential campaign, Trump emphasized his message of “America First,” claiming that foreign entanglements would be too costly.
As president, why did Trump reject his predecessor’s example and throw out his own foreign policy playbook?
Perhaps images of suffering and dead victims of last week’s attack so moved the president that he felt compelled to act. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies,” Trump said, “that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
Having established his “red line,” Trump possibly thought that if he backed away, as Obama had, he would be perceived as “weak.” The strike then became a form of political posturing vis-à-vis his predecessor, rather than the product of sudden, intense compassion. This suggestion certainly makes sense, considering Trump’s refusal to provide refuge to Syrian victims or take steps to actively mitigate their suffering.
Perhaps the strike was a signal to North Korea and Iran. Both countries have pursued weapons of mass destruction, much to the chagrin of the United States. An attack in response to the use of chemical weapons projects U.S. power and warns intransigent states of the consequences they might encounter for similar actions.
Perhaps, finally, the strike was a foreign policy distraction. The Trump administration has been criticized repeatedly for its alleged ties to the Russian government. Trump and his team possibly hoped that an attack on a Syrian government air base would convince the public that the United States is not the pawn of Russia — the Syrian government’s perennial ally.
Undoubtedly, for the time being, there remains uncertainty about the motivations behind Trump’s actions. This uncertainty, however, should not be license to apathetically disregard concerns about the president’s evolving foreign policy. We should challenge a president who orders such a strike without the approval of Congress. We should question the effectiveness of a “humanitarian” intervention, in response to innocent deaths, that itself reportedly killed four children. We should organize to provide relief to victims and, with our electoral power, press leaders to pursue diplomatic efforts to solve this crisis.
As students, we should play a role in advocacy. Students Organize for Syria is a campus organization that not only raises awareness about the Syrian crisis but also provides aid to refugees and other displaced persons. Through its Students Teach 4 Syria Program, SOS holds donation drives and events for Syrian refugees who have settled in San Diego. Involvement with SOS is just one example of what USC students can do to promote refugee rights in the wake of the Trump administration’s latest, deeply consequential foreign policy decision.
Bailee Ahern is a senior majoring in political science and international relations. Her column, “Vis-à-Vis,” runs every other Monday.