President Donald Trump's missile strike against a Syrian military airfield was a reasonable response to Syria's chemical attack on civilians that was a gross violation of moral norms and international law. But the attack also marked another abrupt twist in Trump's Syria policy, raised the stakes with Russia and Iran and further complicated the picture on the ground in Syria's six-year-old civil war. While the action received praise from members of both political parties and some U.S. allies, the president needs to explain to the American people how it fits into a more coherent, clear foreign policy going forward.
The United States fired 59 Tomahawk missiles from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, striking the Shayrat air base. That is the base Washington says was used in the attack on the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, which killed 87 people. Western nations said the attack involved a weapon made of chlorine and a nerve agent, likely sarin, a toxin banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013.
Russia, whose military support has kept Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime afloat, condemned the U.S. strike and suspended an agreement with Washington to coordinate the use of airspace over Syria, where a U.S. alliance has been bombing Islamic State forces and Russia is flying sorties to attack militants and anti-Assad Syrian rebels. Russia is stalling for time, and it previously took credit for negotiating an arrangement in 2013 for Syria to dismantle its chemical stockpiles. Its call for an investigation is aimed at softening condemnation of its client state and maintaining the stalemate in the civil war.
World leaders generally rallied around Trump's decision, as did members of Congress from both parties and both of Florida's senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. But support was often narrowly tied to the horrific images of the chemical attack, which killed dozens of children. Already Friday, some on Capitol Hill called for a full debate on requiring the White House to seek Congress' approval for further hostilities. This reflects both the potential for escalation and the hesitancy in Congress for extending U.S. military missions even further in that unsettled part of the world.
Trump's inconsistency on Syria hasn't helped. He consistently vowed during the campaign to stay out of Syria, and this week his administration dismissed the goal of removing Assad from power. Then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed that stance and Trump was moved to respond militarily after viewing the horrific images following the chemical attack. Reacting by gut with a seesaw approach does not send a coherent message, reassure allies or provide clarity to the American public. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Friday the White House was "prepared to do more" but hoped it would not be necessary. What does that mean?
Trump has few options. More strikes would send a provocative signal to Assad, the Russians and Syria's Shiite allies in Iran, and it would raise expectations among rebel groups that the American public and Congress may refuse to fulfill. It also could trigger a response from Russia that would escalate the stakes.
Responding to uphold the spirit of the chemical weapons ban is legitimate. But if the president is weighing the larger morality of a war that has taken 400,000 lives and sparked a migration crisis for millions, he needs to lay out what American interests are at stake and the extent to which the United States may be called on to protect them. America's foreign policy has to be clear and consistent and cannot shift by the day or by the latest television report, even if this time the reaction happened to be justified.