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Last week the U.S. bombed Syria, but not much changed. Here’s what you need to know.

- April 16, 2018

On Friday night, U.S., British and French forces struck three sites in Syria, in retaliation for the Assad regime’s alleged chemical attack on its own soil. After hinting only the week before that he wanted the United States to pull out of Syria entirely, President Trump tweeted that the bombs were coming, then that they might or might not be coming soon, before finally announcing the airstrikes in a televised speech late Friday evening.

Yet despite the strikes and all the shifts leading up to them, little has changed either in U.S. policy or in Syria itself.

During the last week, here at the Monkey Cage much of what we posted were pieces updated from Trump’s April 2017 strikes on Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons then. Even the new pieces could have applied to last year’s action, or even to actions taken by prior administrations. In Syria, the United States has few good military options — and yet, as Emma Ashford has written, presidents face pressure to do something. So our authors noted that the response to the Assad regime’s latest atrocity was not particularly surprising. Nor, in the end, is much likely to change — as Marc Lynch concluded after last year’s strikes.

Here are the takeaways from our coverage of the president’s decision to strike Syria since last Monday, which was also John Bolton’s first day as national security adviser. Let’s work our way backward, in reverse chronological order.

1. The airstrikes themselves

Susan Hannah Allen and Carla Martinez-Machain drew on their recently published research to examine why countries choose airstrikes, and airstrikes alone. Trump is by no means the first president to do so, nor will he likely be the last. Airstrikes are often an attractive option, even when they aren’t likely to be effective. As the authors explained, “President Trump’s decision to employ strikes is not particularly surprising. Leaving aside his own personal views, he is the leader of a rich state with few good military options in Syria, a country where the stakes for the United States are relatively low.”

2. The president’s tweeted preview of the coming strikes

Carrie Lee explained that announcing war plans is often useful — but that this was not one of those times. As she wrote, “sometimes there are good strategic reasons for leaders to publicize military operations before a major ground offensive,” but in this case, “the kind of airstrikes that Trump suggested Wednesday require the element of surprise.”

So why would Trump have previewed the coming military actions? “Trump’s tweet is less likely to have genuinely been a military announcement,” Lee concluded, “and much more likely to have been an appeal to his domestic political base as the special counsel’s investigation escalates and midterm elections approach.”

3. The president had no legal authority to order those airstrikes

Back in April 2017, Andrew Rudalevige explained why the strikes were not constitutionally acceptable, nor were they now, as he repeated in his updated post. In brief, Congress has to authorize the president to use force. Yes, in 2001 it passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — which authorized military action against the 9/11 terrorists. But he explained that the 2001 AUMF doesn’t cover an attack on Bashar al-Assad’s government. As Rudalevige wrote, “there is plenty of bluster from the White House corner of the Internet. But as yet, from Capitol Hill … crickets.”

4. Trump’s base doesn’t care how much he changes his positions

On the political front, we re-upped this post by Sarah Croco and Jared A. McDonald on research they conducted in the wake of last April’s strikes on Syria, showing that Trump supporters did not care about his flip-flop in positions — opposing strikes on Syria as a candidate, and then conducting them as president. Using a survey experiment, they found that “people’s existing feelings about Trump often overrode the policy reversal’s effect.” In fact, “when asking about perceptions of the president’s predictability, the only people who punished him [for changing his mind] were those who already disliked Trump. The president, therefore, probably needn’t worry about domestic political fallout from this particular shift; it’s unlikely to cost him a significant number of supporters.” That’s likely to apply as much now as it did in April 2017.

5. But Trump did use the right rhetoric to win bipartisan support for this strike

Sarah Kreps and Sarah Maxey also used evidence from survey experiments to show that the public responds to humanitarian rhetoric — which Trump used frequently this week. In their research, Kreps and Maxey looked at whether “Americans were more likely to support military action for humanitarian reasons or military action to defend a foreign country against invaders.”

Humanitarian reasons won, Kreps and Maxey found, and by wide margins — because respondents from both parties felt a sense of moral obligation to intervene to help others. So Trump’s humanitarian rhetoric this week may have been politically useful.

6. This crisis came on John Bolton’s first day as the president’s national security adviser

Last Monday, I wrote about Bolton’s first day on the job just as the Trump administration was starting to respond to the chemical attack in Syria. Several recent posts here at the Monkey Cage reminded us of a well-known but often-forgotten lesson: The United States cannot impose its will in regional conflicts. This is a lesson the U.S. has relearned over and over again — in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other conflicts.

Why do presidents forget this lesson? As Emma Ashford notes, it is very hard to resist the urge to “do something.” But when the United States turns to military force — as it is prone to do in an era where it is so militarily preeminent, as Joshua Shifrinson explained here — it may not accomplish what proponents like Bolton expect.

In the first week of the Trump-Bolton era, then, we saw familiar faces in new roles. But the script was largely the same. The ending probably will be, too.