America struck flawlessly, but the big question is what comes next

America struck flawlessly, but the big question is what comes next
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With all the to-ing and fro-ing, unprecedented name calling and personal attacks that characterize today’s American discourse, I was quietly comforted by the voice of Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie the morning after the April 13 airstrikes on Syria. He is director of the Joint Staff, kind of the chief operating officer of the Joint Chiefs chairman. He was briefing the results of the attack with the precise, confident, fact-based style that I had become accustomed to hearing in nearly four decades in uniform.

McKenzie had a good story to tell: Just over 100 weapons, all on target, including missiles from American surface combatants, a submarine and bombers, supplemented by some French and British stand-off weapons. There was no Russian defensive response at all, and little Syrian reaction until after all weapons had struck their targets. Militarily, it was a good news story, a demonstration of an on-call, long-range precision strike, something that all presidents take for granted as a naturally occurring phenomenon, but which takes a great deal of effort to create.

There also seemed to be some more good news in how the policy discussions that led to this particular action were conducted. After all, the departure point for the interagency process was a presidential promise that Syria would pay a “big price” followed by some pregame trash talk aimed at Vladimir Putin, as President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE tweeted about the missiles: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and smart!”

By all accounts, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump prizes loyalty over competence — we are seeing the results Lawmakers torch Trump plan to pull 11,900 troops from Germany Are US-Japan relations on the rocks? MORE and the military leadership pushed back against a spasmodic response, and there were reports that Trump was frustrated that their recommended and prudent military options didn’t fit his preferred, more dramatic approach. Getting some allies on board was also a plus, even if they were the former colonial powers in the region and the architects of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which set up the now-failed states of Iraq and Syria.

In the end, the United States, Britain and France struck three chemical weapons-related facilities. The physical damage they inflicted sets back future Syrian chemical weapons production. If the president’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration meant anything, it was in terms of iron on target. Whether it will deter future Syrian actions is unknowable.

Like the airfield strike a year ago following Syria’s use of the nerve agent sarin, this latest bombardment really angered some of Trump’s more extreme base supporters. A distraught Alex Jones tearfully complained on Infowars, “He’s crapping all over us … Trump’s now a fraud.” Based on the president’s campaign and the expectations he created, Jones had a point. Trump, operating in the best traditions of American internationalism, has now twice taken a leadership role in defense of an international norm prohibiting chemical weapons, not exactly an “America first” posture.

There seemed to be genuine human emotion in the president’s responses. Trump had been particularly struck by the images of dead children in last year’s sarin attack. But I think there was also a fair dose of his wanting to put distance between himself and his predecessor, not unlike his actions on the Paris Climate Treaty, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal and the Affordable Care Act. The decision to launch U.S. airstrikes seemed to scream, “I’m not Obama!”

But, the Alex Jones panic attack aside, round two of American airpower over Syria didn’t really seem to be signaling any broader change in American policy. Defense Secretary Mattis was quick to point out that this round was over, even as the president exalted over the strikes, and the United States went back to the mean business of killing what is left of ISIS.

There were no commitments to stop the killing of civilians in Syria when conducted by means that did not include chemicals. The same goes with regard to any commitments to help the people of Syria by admitting them into the United States. Indeed, the number of Syrians arriving here dropped from 15,000 in 2016 to only 3,000 last year and, so far in 2018, a scant 11 have been permitted entry.

There were also no commitments of American resources and energy toward a political solution in Damascus. That has seemingly been outsourced to Russia, Iran and Turkey, whose leaders meet periodically on their joint project. Trump recently froze $200 million earmarked for recovery efforts in Syria. All that has alarmed his military commanders who view what happens next in Syria — the “stabilization phase” in Pentagon speak— as critical to making sure the United States don’t have to go back and fight there again.

Trump’s commander in the region, Gen. Joseph Votel, recently told an audience in Washington that the next steps have to be “stabilizing these areas, consolidating gains, getting people back into their homes, addressing long-term issues of reconstruction.” But he is working for a reluctant and stubborn president. As Lt. Gen. McKenzie assured us, last Friday’s airstrikes were near flawless, tactically. Our doing it, especially with some friends, also upheld an important international norm.

But on the morning of April 14, everyone retreated to their respective corners, with a relieved Bashar Assad back to brutalizing his countrymen and expanding his regime’s control, the Russians back to increasing their influence in the region, the Iranians back to building a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut, and the Americans, back to arguing among themselves about “should I stay or should I go.”

Gen. Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency, is a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His next book is “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”