The images of children gasping for air and dying in their parents' arms are said to have made Trump, who came to power on an "America First" isolationist doctrine, react.
It's possible that Trump was so moved by the images that the strikes were merely an emotional response to a moral outrage. But the president's emotions are not a strategy, and America's forces cannot be aligned around what does, and does not, move him.
Our role is to act in ways that balance the reasons for our action against the consequences that will occur when other nations -- equally proud, defiant and powerful -- respond.
And though immediate responses to the strike were overwhelmingly positive, and in some instances fawning, the fog of war tends to get lifted. In a show of defiance, Syria has already started utilizing
the same airfield the US military struck. Russia has made moves to withdraw
some operations from the uneasy but important US-Russian alliance to combat ISIS. And the US has reduced
airstrikes against ISIS as it determines what Russia's response will be.
As a nation, should never confuse operational success (was the mission accomplished?) with strategic success (did the mission accomplish our goals?). There is no question that the attacks on the Syrian airfield were a success, but with all due respect, we should hope so.
Launching missiles against an exposed airfield is a familiar exercise. But what we still don't know is how that action fits into a larger policy -- whether it signals a new Trump Doctrine or something less.
In other words, why did we bomb Syria? The explanations have varied: It was merely a message; it was a line in the sand; it was America asserting a moral standard; it was to scare Assad; to it was to pivot from Obama's legacy; it was to end Assad's reign.
Those are a lot of options, and the lack of message discipline by Trump's team -- from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley's strong suggestion that Assad must go to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's announcement
that fighting ISIS is still our priority -- is less a sign of free agents speaking their mind and more a sign that even Trump's closest advisors don't know the game plan.
Without a plan, uncertainty reigns. Syrian rebels and Arab allies are already pushing the Trump administration to do more, which will require some expectation setting by the US once the purpose of the strikes is understood. Syria, Russia and Iran are taunting the strikes. And China, whose president was at Mar-a-Lago as the mission was authorized but who has now returned home, has since criticized
This is disconcerting, to say the least. But it is also careless. There is nothing wrong with military missions having multiple purposes, but the failure to have a single "theory of the case" appears to be the result of there being no theory.
If, for example, the anti-ISIS effort is still of primary importance, surely that should be a statement made less in passing. If getting rid of Assad is now an American policy goal, then how we will do that -- including congressional authorization -- should be clearly discussed.
And now fast forward a few hours, because it gets real. The decision by the Trump team to redirect
the Vinson US aircraft carrier-led strike group toward the Korean peninsula is an aggressive move. Right or wrong, a nation like ours doesn't start from scratch each time we move a major fleet.
North Korea and China, which controls most of what happen with North Korea, will surely view this action in light of the Syria attacks. And they are likely aware of news reports that Trump is getting briefed on various options for addressing the North Korean threat.
We might hope by now that America would have learned that our mere action does not move the world in the ways we always want. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are pretty convincing examples. But if the last few days are any indication, "keep them guessing" is the new Trump approach to foreign affairs.
Sadly, this is not a doctrine. It's a lack of foresight.