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Trump’s Tomahawks: Are We Seeing the Emergence of a New Doctrine?

Peter Roberts
Commentary, 7 April 2017
United States, North America, Syria, Middle East and North Africa
It is tempting to draw immediate conclusions about the US response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. However, the question is whether the launching of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base constitutes Trump’s doctrine for interventions and foreign policy. This is somewhat hard to determine.

Thursday night’s launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria from two US Navy vessels in the Mediterranean puts the meagre Russian strikes from their maritime task group into perspective. It also demonstrates a notable break from the Obama administration’s inaction.

It might also be viewed as a US attempt to re-impose a red line on chemical weapon usage, of the kind President Barack Obama sought to impose in 2013, only to abandon it almost immediately.

The US National Security Council (NSC) reacted swiftly and decisively to the chemical attack launched by Bashar Al-Assad’s forces against rebel-held areas in the northern city of Idlib on Tuesday. The US opted to take direct military action, well beyond the popular tools of modern statecraft, diplomatic demarches or economic sanctions and actions favoured by others.

The break with previous policies was no hurdle to action either, and demonstrated both resolve and speed of response to unforeseen events.

Nor did the NSC seek the permission or cooperation of allies in conducting the strikes. In fact, it seems that few were informed beforehand. Among those notified were Russia, the UK and Israel, signalling the importance of these relationships that should not be underestimated.

It is also important to consider the signals that this action will send to other competitors and belligerent actors about how President Donald Trump might react to other crises.  

Russia, Iran, China and North Korea will likely be frantically examining and analysing the actions of the US Navy from a strategic perspective, attempting to divine whether and how such actions might be wrought against them if they transgress.

However, when making such considerations, other actors will be stumped by the sheer unpredictability of the US reaction, both in scale, timing and means of response. So, is this a Trump doctrine or not?

It is too early to tell, which should come as no surprise given the time it has historically taken to identify and articulate the doctrines of other presidents.

The real test will be the US response to continued North Korean ballistic missile launches. While Pyongyang may well ignore the American strikes against Syria, this attack has bought the Trump administration some time in dealing with the Korean situation, in the sense that the US appears to have reacted forcefully, and that will improve its standing.

Once again, the US has set the news agenda, just as Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Florida. Overall, Trump has created wiggle room and time by proactive military action.

Yet all these aspects lead to a definite conclusion. Trump has shown that he is capable of using force, although he continues to be an unpredictable actor. That in itself might cause many states to defer more aggressive actions against internationally acceptable normative behaviour.

A Tomahawk missile is launched from guided-missile destroyer USS Porter in the the Eastern Mediterranean against Sharyat airbase in Syria on 7 April. Courtesy of US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams.


Professor Peter Roberts
Director Military Sciences, RUSI

Peter is Director of Military Sciences at RUSI. The research group provides thought leadership and impactful research on military... read more

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