Whatever else came out of the latest American-led strikes on Syrian chemical weapon sites, it put on display rare signs of diplomatic skill on the part of the Trump administration, even if those signs first surfaced at the Pentagon rather than at the White House, the United Nations or Washington’s rudderless Department of State.
After Britain, France and the United States lobbed on April 13 more than 100 missiles at Syrian targets that they linked to the production or storage of chemical weapons, President Trump crowed as usual about his own strategic acumen and heaped abuse primarily on Russia and Iran — for enabling Syria — rather than on Syria itself for using poison gas against its own people. This may be why critics of Trump’s foreign policymaking have said that he has displayed no learning curve during more than 15 months in the White House.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador, then took to the Security Council on the morning after the US-led strikes to warn that more missiles would be on their way in the event of another Syrian attack, even if that meant once again the US acting without Security Council authorization, violating the UN Charter. (As if referring to a child, Haley told the media, below, at the UN the day before that she was “unbelievably proud of how President Trump has . . . not let anyone rush him into this.”)
“Hopefully, some day we’ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran — but maybe not,” Trump mused in televised remarks, meandering off-point during his announcement of the raid punishing Syria over its April 7 chemical weapons attack on an enclave in the city of Douma.
“Mission Accomplished,” Trump later tweeted after the Pentagon’s preliminary assessment of the damage inflicted on the Syrian facilities. Could he possibly have been unaware of George W. Bush’s deep regret in using the very same phrase to prematurely boast in 2003 that he had brought law and order to Iraq?
Addressing an emergency session of the UN Security Council on April 14, the morning after the US-led attack, Haley took a combative tone to disclose that Trump had just informed her that Washington remained “locked and loaded” should Damascus unleash another poison gas attack.
“When our President draws a red line, our President enforces the red line,” she said, apparently harking back to President Obama’s failure to enforce his own Syrian red line. Hardly diplomatic pearls on her part nor original wording, given that Trump used “locked and loaded” last year, referring to the North Korean crisis.
Over at the Pentagon, Dana White, the chief spokesperson, proved to be the very model of a modern peacemaker, working into her talking points the importance of the international convention on chemical weapons and the Geneva-based international peace initiative for Syria, both of which fall under the UN’s purview.
“It is very important to remember that this represents three permanent members of the UN Security Council who did this,” White said, referring to the joint action by France, Britain and the US. In their own remarks, neither Trump nor Haley mentioned the UN’s central role in upholding the Convention on Chemical Weapons or the peace efforts in Geneva or of the three allies’ status as veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. Recently, Haley even told students at Duke University that she felt “disdain” toward the UN.
France and Britain are “our oldest allies. This is about values,” said White, stressing that Washington fully supported the chemical weapons treaty crafted under UN sponsorship. As for the peace process led by UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, the joint strikes represented “an opportunity to put real steam behind the process,” she said.
With support like that from the Pentagon, think of what Trump could do with a fully staffed and empowered Department of State.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.