Donald Trump’s swift and decisive strike against Syria on Thursday may reassure allies and give pause to America’s enemies, but behind what’s being called by many a measured military response to a gas attack on Syrian civilians is this: The generals empowered by the President are now taking charge.
Trump has salted his young Administration with former and -- in the case of National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster – current military leaders, and the move against the repressive and murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad demonstrates that all that gold braid isn’t just window dressing: The President is listening to the generals – especially former Marine General James Mattis, now Defense Secretary, and McMaster -- as they shake off the shackles of the micromanaging Obama Administration.
But it’s not just the barrage of 59 Tomahawk missiles to neutralize the Syrian air base from which the chemical attack was launched that signals a change in the management of U.S. military and foreign policy.
Earlier in the week, General McMaster – according to multiple accounts and analyses -- exerted his authority and engineered the removal of chief White House strategist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.
The appointment of Bannon, the political architect of Trump’s once-improbable election victory, to the NSC and the back-benching of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence, who were demoted from full council membership, caused consternation among national security professionals.
Bannon’s removal, the restoration of Marine General Joe Dunford and intelligence chief Dan Coats to the NSC and the addition of former Goldman Sachs executive Dina Powell as Deputy National Security Adviser demonstrates that Trump is trying to put to rest concerns about the politicization of an advisory body charged with giving the President untainted options when he must make critical decisions.
On MSNBC’s Morning Joe today, political analyst John Heilemann asked Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of the President, about Bannon’s removal. McCain said the question of whether Trump would listen to his strong national security team has been answered, and earlier in the show said that the President has restored the U.S. credibility lost when Obama failed to act after Assad crossed “a red line” when he used chemical weapons in 2013.
McCain said Mattis and McMasters realize that the situation in Syria “will be a long, hard slog” but he said America can expect more enthusiasm from its allies because of that restoration of credibility.
The strike against Syria sends several messages from Trump and the American military:
- To Russia, it says: Rein in your client state Syria and think about a political solution that while it may not include regime change, alters the equation in what has become an intractable civil war and a human rights nightmare.
- To Iran, it says: Back off. Your free hand and continuing efforts to destabilize the region and exert influence are being challenged. And certainly, Tehran may see the message as personally signed by Secretary Mattis, who clashed with the Obama Administration when he was a Marine general over not taking a harder line toward Iran.
- To North Korea, it says: Your erratic war-mongering will not be tolerated. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Morning Joe that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un must be wondering, “What am I dealing with?”
McCain also pointed to the threat from Pyongyang. “The most immediate crisis we have right now is not in the Middle East, it’s this crazy fat kid” in North Korea, he said.