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Attacking Syria Sent a ‘Message’ to the World, But Not the One Trump Wanted

Launching an illegal attack on another government doesn't communicate seriousness or strength.

It seems that China isn’t being awed into submission by Trump’s useless Syria attack:

Mr. Shen added that many Chinese were “thrilled” by the attack because it would probably result in the United States becoming further mired in the Middle East.

“If the United States gets trapped in Syria, how can Trump make America great again? As a result, China will be able to achieve its peaceful rise,” Mr. Shen said, using a term Beijing employs to characterize its growing power. “Even though we say we oppose the bombing, deep in our hearts we are happy.”

As I said before, this is why it is foolish to use military action to try to “send a message” to other governments. In most cases, the message that our leaders intend to send isn’t the one received. For one thing, people in other countries see American military strikes in a very different light than American hawks do. For another, military action is a crude, imprecise, and ineffective way to communicate with other states. Launching an illegal attack on another government doesn’t communicate seriousness or strength. It is something that someone desperate to be taken seriously will do, and in so doing he reminds everyone how ridiculous he is. The attack on Syria hasn’t impressed people in China, and insofar as it was intended to “send a message” to North Korea it will likely just confirm their determination to continue developing their nuclear and missile programs.

Micah Zenko notes that the idea that the attack will strengthen international norms makes no sense:

As I noted in 2013, using force unilaterally and in clear violation of international law and norms in order to uphold another international norm is a shortsighted and simply bad idea.

By illegally attacking the Syrian government, Trump is discrediting the U.S. in the eyes of the world when our government talks about international law and obligations. The “message” he wanted to send and the one that he has actually sent are as different as can be. Instead of demonstrating a commitment to upholding international norms, Trump’s decision shows that our government will trample on those norms whenever it wants. All that this accomplishes is to make the U.S. seem even more lawless and irresponsible than it already did.