Trump the Rationalist

By Xander Snyder

President Trump has taken a lot of flak for his missile strike against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airbase. One of the criticisms that’s bounced around my social media echo chamber is how irrational it is for Trump to get involved in another Middle Eastern war. But I don't understand how Trump’s decision to launch a limited missile strike on Syria can be considered irrational.

Think about how this move helps Trump. From a political standpoint, the missile strike is a win for him. Trump gets to beat his chest and say he's a strong president . And so far the strikes have been interpreted positively by many of the United States’ allies for little cost. No ground troops, no American blood. No families worrying about their sons, daughters, husbands, and wives being sent to an unknown land to risk their lives for an ill-defined cause.  A few missiles hitting one air base almost certainly will not sway the war one way or another. So the Russians, who otherwise may be concerned about Assad’s progress getting reversed, are placated. Trump stays out of the Middle East, is seen as a strong president, and gets to claim that he put the Russians on notice without poking them too hard in the eye. For a political leader who must constantly contemplate his next election, this is all rational behavior.

Some have mentioned the price tag of the Tomahawk missiles that were used in the strike. They ranged in cost from $1.2 million -$1.5 million per missile. Since 59  missiles were used in the attack, many have claimed that a strike costing $90 million was a waste of funds. This is a weak argument. The United States’ defense budget in 2015 was nearly $600 billion. That’s $600 billion that gets spent each year on weapons inventories. So, $90 million is nothing compared to the cumulative size of multiple years’ budgets. If the strike ends up curbing more chemical attacks it will be considered a worthwhile investment. Again, for a president looking to shore up his power and boost his ratings both at home and with other countries, the strike was a success.

Then there was the timing. Trump ordered the strike during his weekend-long meeting with Xi Jinping. It’s important to consider that this wasn’t just a typical diplomatic meeting. It was the first time the new leader of the world’s superpower was meeting with that of the world’s second most powerful country. This was a big deal. The media even began reporting on the meeting cordialities, a topic that’s usually reserved for diplomacy wonks. Xi preferred formal proceedings but Trump was more likely to opt for a more casual atmosphere. This might be interpreted as a lack of respect towards Xi. In such a publicized context this could be perceived as a slight to all of China. To be clear, these details have real implications and are important to consider before important meetings between world leaders. However, when was the last time you remember the news discussing different diplomatic formalities?

In this high-stakes atmosphere, the missile strike was meant to send a message to Xi that Trump is willing to use some degree of military force rather than just make threats. Now, with the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group heading to the Western Pacific, Xi must reassess his prior judgment regarding American thresholds in East Asia. China can no longer take for granted that the United States will do nothing to North Korea. This lets Trump say to Xi: “Hey...remember all those trade tariffs I talked about when I was campaigning that would definitely hurt your economy and political stability? I’m willing to forget about all that if you can take care of this North Korea problem for us. We don’t really want to, but as you can see we will if we have to.”

It was a trade. Trump does deals, and the missile strike gave him something to trade that the Chinese didn’t think he actually had. Showing a willingness to act forces the other side in a negotiation to consider larger concessions.

You may think that this approach to diplomacy is a horrible idea but it is not a crazy one. It is motivated by a rational approach to negotiation, although one with a greater tolerance to certain types of risk.

A conversation about the degree of risk America is willing to take to prevent different types of threats is one worth having. Indeed, it is a question America will have to answer in the near future as it develops greater awareness of the limits of its strength. But the conversation should then focus on how comfortable we are with which risks and why. Referring to someone as irrational because of a disagreement over different risk tolerances will only wedge the issue and make it increasingly stuck.

Erik and I discuss the Trump’s decision making rationale, as well as other details of this missile strike on our recent ReConsider podcast episode. We promise to leave you with at a handful of ReConsider points that will challenge your current perspectives.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.