Punitive strike an impulsive decision

Shibley Telhami does not believe the punitive strike was a good idea — he is fundamentally opposed to unilateral action, even against war crimes.

Apr 13, 2017

By Kevin Clarke
Shibley Telhami does not believe the punitive strike was a good idea — he is fundamentally opposed to unilateral action, even against war crimes. But Mr Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., said he was more concerned about the decision-making process that led up to the US attack.

“One set of questions I’m thinking about is the decision-making here, how an act of war decision is made (in the Trump White House) and the other set of questions concerns the possible consequences with Syria” in the aftermath of the cruise missile attack.

“To be honest, the first (set of questions) bothers me a lot more.”

“Stunning” is how Mr Telhami describes the president’s turnaround on the Assad regime. “We’re in a situation where the president changes his mind within 24 hours, first showing acceptance, or at least being tolerant, of a regime that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people, whether through chemical or conventional weapons,” he said.

“Suddenly, after one episode with a few dozen deaths, he shifts completely and goes against everything he said before and does it without any public deliberation or without any consultation with Congress, without even notifying Congress beforehand,” he added, his voice rising.

Even if “it turns out to be the right step,” he said, this is “an impulsive war decision.”

Acts of war, he said, are “something that matters to all of us.”

“We need to have a national debate on these things; it’s not a decision for the president to make in the dead of night.” Especially a president, he added, “who has been as unstable in the way he makes decisions as this.”

The strike may be in violation of international law, according to Mr Telhami, and defies the US Constitution, which reserves war powers to Congress, albeit a conceit observed more often in the breach than otherwise in recent decades. Mr Telhami wonders what the decision may say about how the Trump administration would approach other flashpoints around the world as tensions rise with North Korea and a confrontation with China looms over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The decision to strike back at the Assad regime because of the apparent but still unconfirmed use of sarin gas in the Idlib attack was supported by many across the aisles of Congress, though some members complained the president should have brought the matter to Congress for approval before ordering the US military into action. Regional powers Saudi Arabia and Israel also applauded the move, as did al-Qaeda connected rebel factions in Syria via Twitter accounts.

Mr. Telhami wonders what the strategy for ending the conflict and extricating US forces in Syria is, suggesting that if the president has not got a plan, he should put a team together immediately to work on one. As far as the hopes of bringing over six years of conflict to an end in Syria, Mr. Telhami considers the US intervention a setback.

He said Mr Assad is unlikely to return to ceasefire negotiations now because he would seem to be bowing to US pressure. In the near term, supported by enhanced Russian air defenses, the anti-ISIS campaign being conducted by US forces will become more complicated and riskier for US pilots. In response to the US cruise missile strike, the Russian military has abandoned an agreement to coordinate missions over Syria with their US counterparts, increasing the likelihood of a dangerous collision between the world’s largest nuclear-armed powers.

But beyond the greater risks in the skies over Syria, Mr Telhami worries that the United States now has no relationship with any party in the Syrian civil war willing to work with it to conclude some kind of cessation of hostilities. Faced with an obdurate Assad regime, would the Trump administration accept withdrawal from the conflict and the US weakness that it would project or double down with an escalation of hostilities, a “slippery slope to a conflict nobody wants,” said Mr Telhami. Worst among a line-up of unintended consequences, how might Russia react if Russian casualties occur in a future US strike? How might the United States react if Russian defences take down an American aircraft?--America Magazine

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