On the Lexington village green on July 29, 1775, the Massachusetts colonial militia confronted a company of British regulars. One of them, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortal words, “fired the shot heard round the world.” Thus began the American Revolution, an event that ultimately triggered the collapse of an international system of empires and the rise of the modern nation state, of which the new American republic became the foremost.
When Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on his fellow Syrian citizens in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, he knew not the whirlwind he would unleash. In less than 48 hours, President Trump, in consultation with his advisers, ordered a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Shayrat Air Base, from which this attack originated, as punishment for this blatant violation of the Geneva Convention banning the use of chemical weapons. This barrage has shifted the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of the 21st century in several key respects.
For openers, in sheer military terms it provided a vivid reminder that the American Armed Forces have no peer competitor. The 59 Tomahawks were launched over a 30-minute period to the targeted Shayrat Air Base where they first loitered until converging into a devastating detonation of the entire fleet of missiles in just two instantaneous minutes. And it was a devastation of uncanny precision. Twenty Syrian fighter jets went up in flames, the base’s control tower was obliterated, and fuel depots and ammunition storage bunkers were destroyed. But the runway was left intact, a chemical weapons warehouse untouched, and the facilities housing the Russian advisors were not hit. No other military has the capability to do this.
As such, and certainly atypical for the fledgling Trump Administration, the missile strike drew widespread domestic support. Predictably, the twin Republican hawks, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Sen. John McCain, fairly wept for joy. More surprising were the endorsements from prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former Secretary of State John Kerry. Indeed, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton went so far as to call for the grounding of the entire Syrian Air Force.
Internationally, in a particularly deft move, during a state dinner President Trump hosted for Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping, he revealed the Tomahawk strikes to his guest for dessert, even as he dispatched a Carrier Battle Group toward North Korea to convey the not-too-subtle point that the modus operandi of American diplomacy has changed, as should the calculations of our adversaries.
Nowhere have these new calculations more application than for the Russians in Syria. Until now, it was beginning to seem that Moscow had outmaneuvered Washington from the equation in any Syrian peace settlement. The Russians are now in the awkward position of being in alliance with an international war criminal, while the United States is once again on center stage for any solution to Syria’s future. This tectonic switch is an illustration of the German Iron Chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck’s, dictum: “Diplomacy without armaments is like music without instruments.”
That said, from those armaments it is the diplomats who have to make the music — to convey the meaning, purpose, and strategy of the armaments’ use. In accompaniment of these Tomahawks, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Assad has to be removed and for Syria to expect more strikes. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tells us that Assad should go, but his fate should be decided by the Syrian people. National Security Adviser H.R. MacMaster sets forth the equal priorities of defeating ISIS and Assad simultaneously and sequentially. Meanwhile, after the Tomahawks landed, in a brief press conference President Trump declared, “We’re not going into Syria.”
This raises a corollary lesson to the Iron Chancellor’s dictum: if one is going to make music with one’s armaments, the instruments of the orchestra need to be harmonized.