As we approach President Trump’s 100th day in office, his presidency has been characterized as a pell-mell of big ideas trapped in a malaise of legislative failings. Hanging over this dubious litany of shortcomings is the cloud of Russian ties. It is still unclear to what extent the Russian allegations are legitimate accusations or the Democrats’ attempt to destabilize Trump’s presidency. It is clear though that some members of Trump’s inner circle, specifically Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions and Paul Manafort had improper and/or obfuscated communication with Russian officials. As such, it is inevitable and fair that Trump will continue to be dogged by Congressional investigations looking to uncover the whole truth.
One reason that the Russian allegations are likely to have merit is that Trump is incredibly pro-Russia and seeks a strong relationship with them. Unlike Obama (and all presidents since the 19th century), he does not find that America holds a moral high ground when it comes to human rights compared to our Russian comrades. Trump’s stated goal of a good relationship in Russia is threatened by the recent attacks in Syria. If Trump wants to continue to claim that he is pro-American values, he must stand diametrically opposed to Russia and Assad.
The gassing of citizens is outlawed by the Geneva Convention and modern Western political philosophy. America, as the so-called leader of the free world has to be at the forefront in the fight to defend these ideals. Russia, however, has fewer moral qualms and has dismissed the gassing as an incidental explosion of the rebels’ own stockpile. This has been disproved by eyewitness accounts, chemical experts and logic as sarin gas is very difficult to make and these scattered rebel forces do not have the resources. Therefore Trump has to decide whether to play nice with Russia and ignore the gassing or aggressively pursue justice. This pursuit cannot be characterized by a few strong words and Tomahawk missiles, but by dogged determination to fix the situation.
Obama failed in this regard. I always admired his diligent and professorial way of making decisions — he considered consequences and did not let tradition mindlessly dictate his policy. In Syria, however, this thoughtful process failed him, Syria and America. When Assad crossed “the line in the sand,” Obama was so caught up in potential escalation and our country’s distaste of another Middle Eastern war that the only significant response was Assad being forced to dismantle all his chemical weapons. Now that it is clear that was not done, it appears Assad gassed his citizens with almost no retribution from the signatories of the Geneva convention.
So far, Trump’s response has been generally positive. He too mentioned crossed lines but responded with Tomahawk missiles. The key to managing this affair successfully though, is not stopping after a singular show of force but moving to affect change. Obama was correct in not arming Syrian rebels despite political pressure to do so. America has seen weapons given to rebels of dubious intent turned against us and our allies in short order. Therefore what Trump must do is continue punishing both Assad and the Al-Qaeda and Daesh forces in Syria while not putting boots on the ground. Our larger goal should be to back France’s Syrian proposal which is to remove Assad from office but keep the political institutions in place. This can keep the country relatively stable, while showing that no one can gas and barrel bomb citizens with impunity.
Russia will still not be happy with this. Russia is best served by keeping Assad in power and furthering business interests there. America does not worry about Russian business interests in the face of human rights violations and therefore neither should Trump. I have been critical of Trump’s presidency and his biggest failing yet would be jeopardizing innocent Syrians in order to cozy up to Russia. This is why previous presidents have realized that friendly relationships with Russia are untenable; their disdain for human rights is unpalatable for Americans, and it should be for Trump as well.