On October 23, 1983, a building housing U.S. Marines in Beirut, Lebanon was bombed by terrorists, killing 241 Marines and 58 French soldiers. The images of dead Marines being pulled out of the rubble were horrifying. They had been stationed in Lebanon in a “show the flag” mission. These Marines had no offensive mission, they weren’t there to fight, As well, they had no real defensive mission, they only needed to protect themselves. The aftermath of the bombing brought questions as to why the Marines were there, if there was no military mission.
With recriminations beginning to become a chorus of criticism, the Reagan Administration decided on a course of ‘Ultimate Distraction’. Two days after the bombing, Operation Urgent Fury was launched with the invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada . It was the first offensive military invasion by the United States of a sovereign nation since Vietnam. Instantaneously, the news emphasis shifted from Lebanon to Grenada. Reagan had successfully changed to subject from dead Marines to the entire armed forces of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines pouncing upon a ragtag force of Cuban soldiers.
Now we have Donald Trump under siege on several fronts. As Robert Mueller’s investigation starts to reach deeper and deeper into Trumps affairs, and the FBI raiding his lawyer’s files, Trump desperately needs a change of news emphasis. Enter Syria and its use of chemical weapons on its civilians. Without doubt, there should be a response by the United States, but will Trump make a deliberate decision, or will he simply be looking for a distraction from all the tumult that he has caused.
President Obama failed to exact a price from Syrian use of chemical weapons in 2013, and then allowed the Russians to nudge themselves into a military position in Syria. Upon these mistakes, Trump came in and fired 56 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in 2017,and the airfield was back in service the next day. At the time I called this a weak response, and still consider it so. Trump was basically checking a box allowing him to say he fired missiles. His tepid response was just as weak as Obama’s
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The problem with a military response now is that the Russians have dug themselves into Syria as Trump ceded ground to them. Any attack on Syria now, risks killing or injuring Russian troops. A deeper problem, however, is that the Russians have become so emboldened by Trump’s weak stance on anything Russia, that they have threatened to attack any American strike. This risks an exchange of fire between US and Russian forces.
In my August 7, 2017, blog entry, The Art of the Bluff: Another Russian Body Check, (Below), I discuss the mastery of bluffing from the Russians and other adversaries of America. The Russians know their military is not in a position to challenge the US on the battle field. Yet, they also know that the Americans are overly cautious in their military dealings with Russian forces in an effort to avoid conflict between the superpowers. Russia has skillfully used American caution against us. Other countries have challenged Russia, as in the case when Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft on November 24, 2015, and ended that bluff. Yet, the US continues to be bluffed.
Russia intends to push the envelope to a point of possible exchange between the superpowers, and the big question will be whether we are so paralyzed by our fear of escalation to a nuclear exchange that we blink when Russian Migs challenge American forces. It is not beyond the pale of belief. Vladimir Putin has talked a strong game with a weak team. President Obama, as much as I love him, blinked. At the time, he didn’t see a cost in allowing the Russians to have a “limited” operating space in Syria. Yet, now the Russians have hegemony in Syria and Trump wants to pullout and let someone else handle it. That someone else is Russia.
Thus, the overriding concern which seems to be ignored by the pundits, is that the Russians will challenge the US if we attack, simply because they think we will blink. Trump may be forced to test his own resolve. Historically, Trump has settled with putting something in the air in his effort to change the subject. Here, that would be harder to do because the stakes are so high. It is quite possible that the US military will be forced to shot directly at Russians for the first time. The ramifications of a shooting exchange between the US and Russia could be apocalyptic. Yet, I fear our president only sees a convenient distraction.