Tomahawk Foreign Policy: Trump and The Use of Force Short of War

| April 2017
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USS Barry fires Tomahawk missiles. Photo credit DVIDSHUB via Flickr

President Donald J. Trump ordered the launch of fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles to strike Shayrat Airfield in Syria in response Bashar al Assad’s alleged use of sarin gas on civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun (Idlib Province). With approximately eighty men, women, and children losing their lives in the chemical attack, liberals and conservatives alike praised Trump’s bombing as a “commendable and overdue response” to Assad’s chemical weapons use.1 Anne-Marie Slaughter tweeted: “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities.”2 After Assad’s horrific August 2013 chemical attack that killed 1,400 and crossed Obama’s infamous “red line,” the same questions remain for any use of military force: what would “victory” in Syria look like? What is the probability of escalation of a conflict with Russia?

President Obama was acutely aware of the second and third order consequences of engaging in a substantial escalation of conflict in Syria; hence he “blinked” and took his finger off the trigger by seeking Congressional approval for any military response to the “red line.” As David Ignatius noted, Obama “had all the rhetoric of action…but in truth, it was stepping back from the imminent attack that was ahead,” because as Col. Andrew Bacevich (Ret.) believed: “The president was looking for a way to not have to make good on the threat that he had made.”3 Ironically, Congressional approval is exactly what Donald Trump called for at the time, yet he refused to seek it himself in the most recent case.4

For all of the pain, suffering, death, and destruction that have occurred since 2013, Obama still believes he made the right decision on not intervening in Syria, and I reluctantly agree. There is no evidence that a full-scale escalation would have improved the situation in Syria if the “post-war” situations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have taught us anything–“Or as former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen put it last year, ‘We’re zero for a lot.’”5 Although the urge to “do something” (militarily) may indeed be great, it can often have the unintended consequence of decreasing security and increasing risk for civilians on the ground whom we aim to protect.6 Ultimately in 2013, Obama embraced the Russian negotiated deal to get rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal (which evidently did not reach its stated objective) to avoid a war after a massive chemical attack that “shocked the moral conscience.”7

Incoherent Foreign Policy

Tomahawk missile launches at a Syrian airbase, does not a foreign policy make. Trump appears to suffer from a lack of a “grand strategy” of foreign policy. “A grand strategy is a coherent theory of national security based on the careful linkage of means and ends: It establishes priorities, accounts for trade-offs among those priorities, and aligns available resources accordingly.”8 A broader theme in contemporary U.S. foreign policy from Bush, through Obama, to Trump, is a confusion of the means and ends of war–that the means of waging the “War on Terror” (i.e. with drones) is the same as having an end game or a way of “winning.” Nevertheless, Trump’s administration left me scratching my head probably as much as it did Assad, the Russians, and the Iranians due to the multitude of contradictory statements from his cabinet.

First, on March 30, 2017 Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented that Assad’s long-term status “will be decided by the Syrian people.” On the same day, Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stated, “Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”9 Five days later, on Tuesday, April 4, the alleged chemical attack took place. The next day President Trump, speaking from the Rose Garden, stated: “It’s very, very possible…that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much…It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that was so lethal,” then that “crosses many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”10 Nikki Haley took a much more aggressive approach toward Russia in the UN Security Council, referring to Russian responsibility for not fulfilling its obligation to help Assad dispose of his chemical weapons stockpiles per the 2013 agreement. She stated, “If Russia had been fulfilling its responsibility, there would not even be any chemical weapons left for the Syrian regime to use.”11 She later stated on CNN that Assad’s departure was “inevitable.”12 Disagreement over who to blame is the least of the administration’s worries. Having such an incoherent foreign policy, accompanied by consistent mixed messages and rare jumbled statements by Trump, is a recipe for misperception and a possible escalation of conflict between Russia and the U.S.

The Use of Limited Force Short of War

Just War thinking has a long tradition on the justice of resort to war with the jus ad bellum criteria. Yet, what is under-theorized among just war thinkers is the use of force short of war, exemplified by the recent cruise missile strikes in Syria–what Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun have discussed as jus ad vim, borrowing the term from Michael Walzer.13 In thinking through the purpose of the strike, there are three main categories that all uses of force fall into: punishment, deterrence, and compellance. Micah Zenko argues that, “for the most part, states do not use force against other states for no purpose. The logic is different from the stated objectives. And oftentimes, the stated objectives are not the actual objectives.”14 Deterrence in this case would be an attempt to discourage Assad from doing something, and the Trump administration “claims deterrence—that’s very clear both in the Department of Defense statement and the president’s statement.” However, Zenko thinks, “the unstated reason is simply punishment. It’s a demonstration of force.”15 None of this logic is new or unique to Trump. As Daniel Brunstetter noted after the 2013 Syrian chemical attack, the “Obama administration has spoken of punishing the Assad regime, of deterring future attacks, of reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use, and of diminishing the regime’s military capabilities.”16

Due to the ineffectiveness of the strike—the airbase was used the very next day to launch bombing raids on rebel-held areas—the strike was quite clearly intended as a punishment. It is true that with the munitions utilized (1,000 lb. warheads), damage to the airstrip could have been repaired within a few days. So instead, the U.S. targeted “other aspects” of the airfield that made it functional, such as the aircraft, fueling stations, and the missile defense system.17 Although the U.S. notified Russia before the strike, the U.S. was hesitant to use manned aircraft because of the advanced Russian S-300 and S-400 air defense system in place throughout Syria.18 Therefore, the strike was carried out to punish Syria and demonstrate that the U.S. would take action against Assad, albeit merely symbolic military action.

Ethics of Jus ad Vim

The next question one has to ask is: does Tomahawking Syria satisfy the probability of escalation criterion of jus ad vim?19 Although self-defense is necessary to engage in war throughout the legalist tradition, within the just war tradition there is a long history of “protection of the innocents” as a just cause for war. It would be hard to debate the fact that responding to chemical attacks on civilians would not be a just cause. Nevertheless, as the strike was merely punitive, it will likely do little to stop the killing, although the rhetoric of protecting babies from the administration implies protection of the innocents. According to Brunstetter, “Obama has made the case that upholding the norm against chemical weapons is a just cause for a targeted military strike. While enforcing such norms is not a traditional just cause for war, it could be construed as a just cause for limited strikes.”20

Therefore if we believe in upholding the norm against chemical weapons use, the probability of escalation criterion should aid decision-makers in determining the probability of escalation to war in this particular case.  There is clearly fear that this most recent act risks dragging the U.S. deeper and deeper into an unwinnable war, with Russia unwilling to lose its last stronghold in the Middle East. Although I would argue that this particular case satisfied the probability of escalation criterion of jus ad vim—as it was forewarned to the Russians, punitive in nature, and truly limited—Rex Tillerson’s upcoming meeting in Moscow will be more crucial than ever to articulate a coherent and straight-forward foreign policy that the entire Trump administration agrees upon. Ultimately, although the act of force short of war itself has a low probability of escalation of conflict, the confused foreign policy signaling and lack of a grand strategy of the Trump administration and the willingness to use limited force sets the stage for an escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia that could inadvertently (though foreseeably) drag us into an unwinnable war in Syria.

Winners and the Losers of the Limited Military Response

Who are the real winners of this strike? Perhaps President Trump will win a momentary bump in the polls as liberal interventionists and others see him as “presidential” for the first time after his response; however, this will be short-lived. Perhaps the Syrian people who have been fighting Assad’s government forces for years may receive a glimmer of hope that the U.S. may become more involved, although a deeper commitment of “boots on the ground” is a far from certain escalation. The only certainty in who benefits from war is the defense contractors. Raytheon-made Tomahawk missiles were used in the strike, and not coincidentally Raytheon’s stock increased by 2.5% by Friday, April 7, adding $1 billion to its market capitalization. The other weapons manufacturers–Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics–each saw their stock prices rise as much as 1%, collectively gaining $5 billion in market value even as the broader market was falling.21 In the end, this limited strike makes the average American feel good; we are “doing something” to respond to the moral outrage of chemical weapons use.

  1. Rubin, James P. “59 Missiles Don’t Equal a Foreign Policy.” New York Times. April 8, 2017. Available at:
  2. Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities.” April 7, 2017 1:24a.m. Tweet.
  3. Taddonio, Patrice. “The President ‘Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria.” PBS Frontline. May 25, 2015. Available at:
  4. Donald J. Trump’s tweet from August 29, 2013 read: “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.” Then on August 30, 2013: “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” Available respectively via Twitter at: and
  5. Walt, Stephen M. “Tom Friedman is Calling for an Invasion of Syria. Trump Should Run the Other Way.” Foreign Policy. April 7, 2017. Available at:
  6. See Emery, John R. (Forthcoming) “Balancing Security, Risk, and Uncertainty in a World of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty”. In Daniel Brunstetter and Jean-Vincent Holeindre (Eds.), The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited in a World of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.
  7. For incredible insight into the decision-making process by Obama not to intervene see: Smith, Martin, “Obama at War”, PBS Frontline. May 26, 2015. Available at:
  8. Zenko, Micah and Rebecca Friedman Lissner. “Trump is Going to Regret Not Having a Grand Strategy.” Foreign Policy. January 13, 2017. Available at:
  9. Hof, Frederic C. “Obama and Trump on Assad: Change of Policy?” Atlantic Council. March 31, 2017. Available at:
  10. Shear, Michael D. and Michael R. Gordon. “63 Hours: From Chemical Attack to Trump’s Strike in Syria.” New York Times. April 7, 2017. Available at:
  11. Abramson, Alana. “Read Nikki Haley’s Remarks About Syria at the U.N.” Time. April 5, 2017. Available at:
  12. Dewan, Angela. “US envoy Nikki Haley says Syria regime change is inevitable.” CNN. April 10, 2017. Available at:
  13. Brunstetter, Daniel and Megan Braun (2011). “The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition.” Ethics & International Affairs, 25(3), 337-358. doi:10.1017/S0892679411000281
  14. Alvarez, Priscilla. “When Do Limited Strikes ‘Work’? Micah Zenko explains the logic of Trump’s Syria intervention—and its chances of success.” The Atlantic. April 8, 2017. Available at:
  15. Ibid.
  16. Brunstetter, Daniel. “Syria and the Just Use of Force Short of War.” Ethics & International Affairs. September 24, 2013. Available at:
  17. Houck, Caroline. “Here’s What U.S. Missiles Hit at the Syrian Airbase.” Defense One. April 7, 2017. Available at:
  18. Tucker, Patrick. “Can U.S. Warplanes Evade Russian Air Defenses? We May Soon Find Out in Syria.” Defense One. April 7, 2017. Available at: missile defense
  19. Brunstetter, Daniel and Megan Braun. (2013). “From Jus ad Bellum to Jus ad Vim: Recalibrating Our Understanding of the Moral Use of Force.” Ethics & International Affairs, 27(1), 87-106. doi:10.1017/S0892679412000792
  20. Brunstetter, Daniel. “Syria and the Just Use of Force Short of War.” Ethics & International Affairs. September 24, 2013. Available at:
  21. Wieczner, Jen. “Syria Airstrikes Instantly Added Nearly $5 Billion to Missile Makers’ Stock Value.” Fortune. April 7, 2017. Available at:
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