The recent airstrikes on a Syrian airbase in retaliation to the use of nerve gas against civilians were a measured and reasonable response, but the Trump administration should be careful not to treat the actions as a ready-made solution to export to other sticky foreign policy problems.
Nobody could fail to be moved by the horrific footage of choking, convulsing men, women and children coming out of the Syrian town where Turkish authorities have concluded that a nerve agent, such as sarin gas, was used indiscriminately. The images certainly impacted President Donald Trump, who when finally confronted with the painful realities of foreign policy, upended his long-held belief of non-intervention.
The president’s about-face was as sudden as it was unexpected. From a man who unleashed caps-lock fury on Twitter at the Obama administration in 2013 for considering strikes against the Syrian regime and pilloried establishment figures on the campaign trail for espousing any form of intervention, it didn’t take long for Trump to dump his core foreign policy beliefs.
In this case, the expertise of the foreign policy community overrode the president’s isolationist tendencies and led to action that will hopefully curb the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war. That being said, Trump must be careful not to let the success of this strike give him any ideas about exporting the strategy to other arenas of global instability without careful consideration.
One of the most dangerous possibilities is that Trump, riding the wave of praise following the strike on Syria’s Shayrat Airfield, might decide to take similar action against a bellicose North Korea for its missile tests.
Trump’s administration has inherited a Korean peninsula at a boiling point and seems keen to act on it. Following a missile test by North Korea on April 4, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put out a bizarre 23-word press release that tersely remarked “the United States has spoken enough about North Korea.”
On April 8, Reuters reported the Carl Vinson Navy strike group would depart Singapore and heading toward the Korean peninsula.
These two developments do not necessarily imply that the Trump administration is considering a preventive strike, but one should still consider the possible ramifications.
Launching a missile strike against North Korea is not at all comparable to the recent action in Syria. North Korea is a nuclear-equipped state with an arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles. Whether or not the country’s scientists have been able to miniaturize a nuclear device to fit on a missile is unclear, but regardless, the blowback from an American strike on North Korean targets could be disastrous.
Though the U.S. mainland is probably out of range of any current North Korean technology, our allies in South Korea could bear the brunt of retaliation against a U.S. strike. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is only about 25 miles from the border with its estranged northern neighbor, well within the range of North Korean artillery.
A worst-case scenario could see a nuclear weapon launched at Seoul or Tokyo. Some military analysts worry that North Korea’s claim it has successfully miniaturized a nuclear device could be accurate. If so, retaliation for an American strike on North Korea could be catastrophic.
This should not be construed as something that is necessarily likely to happen, but given the Trump administration’s penchant for talking tough, even recklessly so, it is wise to keep in mind that what works in Syria won’t necessarily work in North Korea.
Ian Hutchinson is a Greenfield native pursuing his master’s degree in international affairs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.