Trump taunted Russia over Syria in a new tweet this morning:
Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 11, 2018
Trump’s childish boasting is what we have come to expect from him, but in this case it is especially alarming as it makes a clash with Russia over Syria even more likely. The stupidity of taunting a major power is nothing compared with the stupidity of the impending illegal attack that Trump is going to order in the days ahead. Russia will take Trump’s taunt as a challenge to stand by its client in spite of the attack, and the attack itself risks killing Russian personnel that would create a new crisis with a nuclear-armed state. It bears repeating that there is nothing in Syria worth courting great power conflict over, and there certainly aren’t vital U.S. interests there to be defended. Attacking Syria has the potential to start a larger war, and the U.S. has no need to launch this attack. If Trump follows through on his foolish threats, he will be starting one of the most reckless wars of choice in our history.
Describing Assad as a “gas killing animal” may be emotionally satisfying for Trump, but it makes further escalation more likely. Once the president describes a foreign leader in such terms, he makes it harder to resist pressure to follow up the first attack with a bigger intervention. Everything Trump is doing before the attack is making escalation on both sides more likely rather than less, and that makes the decision to launch an illegal attack even worse and more dangerous than it already was.