By David K. Shipler
If Vladimir Putin actually preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, he just drew his first bad hand. As (not so) humbly predicted in this journal during the campaign, Clinton would have been a methodical, predictable commander-in-chief who would have acted in Syria and elsewhere within a strong diplomatic and military context, not impulsively based on horrendous photographs of gassed children. That was good enough reason to stir Trump’s latent humanitarian impulses, but a single missile strike without solid preparation and well considered follow-up is unlikely to send what press secretary Sean Spicer called “a very strong signal.” Messages sent with missiles and bombs are rarely received as intended.
Clinton would surely have done what Trump didn’t bother to do: She would have been on the phone with Putin after Syria’s chemical weapons strike. She would have talked with Putin before retaliating. She would have surrounded herself with seasoned foreign-policy professionals who would have been working closely with Moscow, even in tough and hard-headed fashion, to fashion a joint approach to ending the Syrian carnage. She would not have led Putin to fantasize that he had a president in Washington that he could twist around his little finger.
This is a speculative scenario, to be sure. But as both Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Clinton displayed a clear-eyed realpolitik—willing to face down Putin but work with him on the countries’ overlapping interests, especially on counter-terrorism. While more hawkish than President Obama, she showed no inclination to go off on half-cocked military adventures isolated from any coherent strategy.
This obvious difference between Trump and Clinton always raised a serious question (in my mind, at least) about whether Putin the chess player truly favored the short-term, tactical gains of a Trump presidency over the longer-term, workmanlike relationship that might have been achieved with Clinton. Perhaps Putin has a short-horizon mentality. Perhaps he is so steeped in KGB training that he merely wants to recruit and run agents—even foreign leaders—for quick advantage. From a distance, though, he seems smarter than that. Perhaps, as has been widely reported, he did allow his distaste for Clinton’s alleged support for popular uprisings that challenged the validity of his last election to color his judgment.
Whatever the case, he finds his position in Syria suddenly challenged by Trump’s swerve into military action with 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two destroyers at the Syrian airbase from which the chemical attacks were believed to originate. The Russians, warned 60-90 minutes in advance, have now responded by cutting off the communication line designed to avoid accidental clashes between their forces and Americans’, and Syrian air defenses are reportedly being beefed up by Moscow. Will this aid Iran in forging even stronger ties with the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad? Will it lead the thin-skinned Trump to up the ante?
News reports said that Syrian planes were flying again from the targeted airfield and conducting strikes against the same town, Khan Sheikhoun, where sarin gas had allegedly been used. Turkey dismissed the American missile strike as “symbolic,” a word also used by a Russian foreign affairs analyst, Vladimir Frolov. “Everybody understands that this is just a symbolic act meant for Trump to look different from Obama,” he told The New York Times. “There won’t be any tangible reaction; this was a one-off strike.” In other words, an empty message.
Back before the Russian involvement in 2015, Clinton has said, she favored creating a no-fly zone in Syria. It would have been military challenging, given the sophistication of Syrian air defenses, and might have risked losing American pilots. Obama’s reluctance, even after the Assad regime crossed his “red line” of deploying chemical weapons in 2013, has been second-guessed ever since, but mostly without acknowledging that the president deferred to Congress, which would not authorize the action. And whether grounding most of the Syrian air force would have driven Assad from power is an open question, together with the more perilous question of whether an ISIS-type force would have taken his place.
The history of sending and receiving messages by military means is fraught with failure. Some signals were completely misread during the Vietnam War, as emerged in discussions during a 1997 Hanoi conference between former American and North Vietnamese officials. For example, the United States applied serious meaning to an attack by North Vietnamese regulars on a base in Pleiku where eight American advisers were killed Feb. 7, 1965, the first specific targeting of Americans, before the US sent ground troops into the war. Officials in Washington attached great significance to the timing, because Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin was visiting Hanoi, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy was visiting Saigon. Seeing the attack as a calculated policy move—a message—the US began bombing North Vietnam the following month.
In the conference nearly thirty years later, however, Lieut. Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a North Vietnamese officer who had been stationed near Pleiku, told the American officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, that “this was a spontaneous attack by a local commander” who had been authorized to treat South Vietnamese troops and their American advisers as equal enemies—“no discrimination,” he said. The operation had been planned long in advance, he asserted, and “we did not know Bundy was in Saigon.” So much for messages attached to bullets.
Similarly, when the US wanted to open small windows into beginning diplomatic contacts with the North, it would halt bombing. But Hanoi officials explained that instead of seeing these as conciliatory gestures, they were interpreted as mere propaganda ploys designed to portray Washington to the world as fleetingly amenable to negotiations. That interpretation was bolstered as the bombing was invariably resumed after contacts failed to materialize.
Fast forward to today and a look at North Korea, which has never responded to tough signals and messages from Washington except to hasten its nuclear weapons program. Think about it: Would you give up the ultimate deterrent on a nebulous promise of improved relations with powers (the US, South Korea) you thought were out to get you? Would you relinquish the chance to play China, which won’t turn off the economic spigot entirely for fear of a North Korean collapse that would generate a flood of refugees into China and possibly create a unified, pro-American Korean peninsula on the Chinese border? The demented North Korean regime is like a tiger on China’s back.
This reasoning might sound simplistic, and it’s certainly not to the advantage of North Korea’s population, suffering under the weight of economic sanctions and corrosive poverty. But the interests of autocratic leaders rarely reach beyond the goal of their own survival. Messages appealing to a larger calculation, especially those delivered by weaponry, rarely induce capitulation. So, sending a US Navy task force toward the Korean peninsula, as Trump has just decided, seems more likely to justify, than to restrain, Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Putin also has a survival interest in North Korea’s direction, given that some of the missiles it’s testing could reach Russian territory. If he’s clever enough, he ought to be wishing that he had a steady adversary like Clinton in the White House, instead of the chest-thumping Trump, who is just waking up to one of the hardest lessons of international affairs: no good options.