Missiles on Syria: An academic view

Stephen Hoadley, Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts, examines the US missile strike on a Syrian military air base from an academic point of view

The details of President Trump’s cruise missile strike on a Syrian airforce base on April 6 have been thoroughly reported in the mainstream media. In addition, perceptive analysts have offered insightful commentary on the motives, means and possible consequences of the strike. 

 Views range from doubt that the strike was little more than an impulsive reaction with no lasting effect, to fears that the US is embarking on a course that will end disastrously in the quagmire of Syrian violence or even in World War III.

All have asked the rhetorical question ‘what now?’ and find, in the Administration’s mixed signals, no coherent plan to end the brutal civil war.

I propose to extend this inventory of viewpoints into the academic realm. Does the event offer an opportunity for academic analysis by teachers, researchers, and students? What insight on the missile strikes can different academic disciplines provide?

My own discipline offers a pair of vantage points, one political and the other international. The domestic political context in which Trump made his decision was one of tension between at least three factions: the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, and the Trump entourage. By striking, Trump was able to demonstrate humanity, resolve and decisiveness in contrast to President Obama’s decision not to act when a worse chemical attack took place in 2013. Trump’s action was applauded by Republicans and accepted by many Democrats (albeit tacitly and grudgingly). And it arrested a steep decline in Trump’s popular approval ratings, as any president’s military initiatives often do in the short term.

However, many legislators were quick to demand that the president seek Congressional approval for subsequent military strikes, and a few condemned the action as provocative and reckless. Nevertheless, on balance, the President has emerged with more respect and political capital than at any time in his heretofore chaotic first hundred days of office.

The international perspective is fourfold, focussing on (1) international law, (2) cosmopolitan morality, (3) geopolitics, and (4) military strategy and science.

(1) Legal scholars will readily agree that the strike was clearly a violation of the international law of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states in the absence of UN Security Council approval or manifest self-defence.

(2) Cosmopolitan philosophers will approve of the strike as a humanitarian intervention, citing the emerging doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’ vulnerable innocents from their own brutal governments.

(3) Geopolitical analysts will note that the strike has rallied allies and raised US credibility, but also has antagonised adversaries such as Russia, Iran and North Korea, possibly stiffening their resistance to US wishes. One hopes that the strike and the admonishment by Secretary of State Tillerson during his visit to Moscow will induce President Putin to reduce his military involvement and thus shift the balance of power and lead to an end of the Assad regime. Few are optimistic, but none offers a better option.

(4) Students of military strategy and science will take satisfaction in how expeditiously US military forces carried out the mission, without injury, accident, misfire, or collateral damage. Likewise teachers of military engineering, electronics, and physics will cite the strike as a successful harnessing of the laws of ballistics, thermodynamics, aeronautics, and guidance systems, and their application with great technical skill.

Other academic disciplines have other perspectives, as follows.

· Psychologists will find intriguing hints of selective perception, narcissism, and wilful ignorance of cognitive dissonance in Trump’s expressions and actions.

· Sociologists may find illustrations of inter-personal dynamics and ‘group-think’ in the interactions of the members of the Trump White House and Cabinet.

· Scholars of literature and the classics may interpret Trump as an ambiguous hero in the classic tradition, bold and misguided and flawed and possibly tragic, by turns.

· Historians will compare Trump’s strike to those ordered by Presidents Bush, Clinton, Nixon, and Johnson, and ponder whether they, and the Trump Administration’s decisions generally, will advance or retard the historic unfolding of American exceptionalism.

· Film and media academics and practitioners will find in the strike, and in the utterances and actions of Trump the man and his associates, ample material for documentaries, semi-factual dramas, and popular movies.

· In due course medical researchers and statisticians will acquire for analysis data on injury and mortality rates and characteristics and their effects on the longer-term demographic trends of Syria.

· Scholars of economics and business administration will attempt to calculate the costs of the strike, the civil war, and the refugee exodus to the region, the foreign protagonists, and the global economy in the short, medium, and long term.

Each of these interpretations will be partial and vary according to the academic paradigm that underpins it.

These diverse academic responses to the Trump strike illuminate the intellectual segmentation of not only university scholarship, but also government decision-making processes. National decision-makers are advised to exercise energy, caution and wisdom to achieve comprehensive, multi-disciplinary understanding of the dynamics and consequences of military actions such as Trump’s before undertaking future military actions.

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