It was hard not to feel some sense of emotional satisfaction, and justice done, when American cruise missiles struck an airfield in Syria on Thursday. The country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, needed to understand that there would finally be a cost for his brutality, in this case the use of chemical weapons with sarin, a banned nerve agent, that killed scores of civilians earlier this week in one of the worst atrocities of the Syrian civil war.
But it is also hard not to feel unsettled by the many questions raised by President Trump’s decision. Among them: Was it legal? Was it an impetuous, isolated response unrelated to a larger strategy for resolving the complex dilemma of Syria, a nation tormented not just by civil war but also by the fight against the Islamic State? So far, there is no evidence that Mr. Trump has thought through the implications of using military force or figured out what to do next.
For a man who had campaigned on an “America First” platform of avoiding entanglements in overseas conflicts and who repeatedly warned his predecessor, Barack Obama, against military action in Syria, Mr. Trump made a breathtaking turnaround in the space of 63 hours after the chemical attack. He has long argued that the top priority was fighting the Islamic State, not forcing Mr. Assad from power; indeed, as recently as last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the United Nations ambassador, Nikki Haley, had reinforced the perception that Mr. Trump was perfectly willing to live with Mr. Assad.
Mr. Trump explained the shift by saying that he had been so deeply moved by television footage of child victims gasping for breath that “my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” However sincere this sentiment, the spectacle of a president precipitously reversing course on war and peace on the basis of emotion or what his defenders describe as “instinct” does not inspire confidence.
One also has to wonder why he was not similarly moved by the 400,000 Syrians who have died since the war broke out in 2011, or by the thousands of Syrian refugees he has barred from the United States.
So what did the 59 missiles accomplish? Militarily, this was a measured response that severely damaged Syrian aircraft and infrastructure at Al Shayrat airfield. Tactically, it may help persuade Mr. Assad (and other problematic leaders, like those in North Korea) that using weapons of mass destruction will not go unpunished. But Mr. Assad still has his chemical weapons, and the civil war endures.
The airstrikes allowed Mr. Trump, whose presidency has so far been defined mainly by its stumbles, to separate himself from Mr. Obama, who threatened military action in the event of a chemical attack but who, after such an attack, chose a smarter course, a deal in which Russia guaranteed the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. It is not clear whether the Kremlin failed to follow through or simply allowed Mr. Assad to retain his lethal capability. In any case, Russia deserves condemnation, as does Iran, which is also enabling Mr. Assad with military and other support.
Whether by design or not, the American military action has also shifted the focus from the scandal over Russia’s interference in the election on Mr. Trump’s behalf and allegations that the president and his allies may have colluded with Moscow. At the same time, it has made it harder for Mr. Trump to meet his goal of improving ties with Russia. Hoping to avoid a military confrontation, Washington alerted the Russians in advance of the airstrikes. Even so, President Vladimir Putin’s office called the strikes a “significant blow” to Russian-American relations, suspended an agreement meant to prevent accidental clashes and threatened to reinforce Syrian air defenses.
On the plus side, the airstrikes have given Mr. Trump a lift in Sunni states in the Persian Gulf, which chafed at Mr. Obama’s refusal to take direct military action against Mr. Assad. European allies and members of Congress also endorsed his decision. But the action lacked authorization from Congress and the United Nations Security Council, raising questions about its legality and spotlighting a rich irony. In 2013, Mr. Trump argued that Mr. Obama must get congressional approval before attacking Syria. Congress, with a long history of ducking its war-making responsibility, refused to give it.
Studies show that one-off military strikes achieve little. Whether this one has given Mr. Trump any leverage with which to press Russia for a diplomatic solution may become clearer when Mr. Tillerson visits Moscow next week. But the greater need is for a comprehensive strategy and congressional authorization for any further military action. There are risks the president simply cannot take on his own.