The U.S.-U.K.-French strike of 103 cruise missiles on Syrian chemical-warfare installations and Moscow’s reaction were so restrained they almost look pretend, as if the two sides were doing reality TV. Missing was the horror, rage and escalation of real war, almost like Tom Lehrer’s song: “Be careful not to injure them.”

After accepting the initial film clips and explanations of the strike, some are beginning to take another look:

1. Trump vowed, “No chemical weapons,” and made himself look more decisive than Obama. Or at least Trump got to appear tough, but the paucity of damage and casualties were a little too perfect. Were they “pinpoint strikes” or war-avoidance?

2. Trump followed the advice of Defense Secretary Mattis and other professionals in the meticulous planning of the restrained strike. Although carried out just a week after the Douma gassing, it shows they’d been preparing for months.

3. Washington claims to have degraded Syria’s chemical-weapons capability. Doubtful. Only escaped gas would demonstrate success, and none was reported. The precisely collapsed buildings may have held no gas. Have they been inspected for chemical residue?

4. The narrow-purpose mission does not contribute to any Trumpian strategy for Syria or the Mideast. Trump doesn’t do strategy; he does appearances. It would be good to finally get a Mideast strategy.

5. Trump accepts that allies are necessary. This is more likely the doing of Mattis and UN ambassador Nikki Haley than isolationist Trump. Britain and France used their minor participation to show they still count.

6. The State Department and secretary of state are diminished. Mil-to-mil diplomacy through the Pentagon worked as well, if not better. Pompeo is aiming for the wrong job, one less important than defense secretary or national security advisor.

7. Russian threats of dire consequences were bluster, and Trump knew it. After Russian mercenaries suffered casualties when they ran into U.S. Special Forces in February, Putin knows Russia is too weak for a real showdown. Both Moscow and Washington, seeking to avoid escalation, found a solution in pretend war.



8. Trump swore he’d never telegraph his military moves, but he publicly warned the Russians in advance. They suffered zero casualties by keeping their forces away from targets and contributed nothing to Syrian air defense. The Russians didn’t attempt to stop any incoming missiles. Russian passivity almost looks like collusion with the U.S.: We don’t hurt you, and you don’t hurt us.

9. Delivering ordnance on target was impressive but less so than avoiding enemy air defenses. If the Russians did not switch on their radar or warn Damascus of incoming missiles, maybe avoiding Syrian air defense was not so hard. Syria’s older Russian anti-aircraft system uselessly fired over 40 rockets. We win by boasting to potential adversaries: “We can overcome your air defenses.”

10. Russia’s lie that Syria had no chemical weapons is unmasked. They blocked inspection of the Douma site until residues dispelled. Expect Moscow to keep lying.

11. Moscow can’t complain about Trump, whom they helped elect. Careful what you wish for. Would Hillary have been any worse for Russia? No, about the same. Personality does not determine everything in international relations; usually deeper forces underlie events. Marxists (or ex-Marxists) are supposed to know that.

12. Trump does nothing to block Putin from building up Russia’s position in the Middle East. Russian championship of Shia regimes (Iran and Syria), however, wins over few of Islam’s Sunni majority, which includes the restive North Caucasus and Central Asia.

13. Moscow calls the strike “American aggression” but uses mild and legalistic language confined to the UN, almost a non-reaction. Moscow made no mention of retaliation.

14. If Putin was ever going to release compromising materials on Trump, he would have done so by now. Either Putin doesn’t have any, or they would hurt Putin as much as Trump, or Trump has shown he no longer cares. Trump revoked Nikki Haley’s threat to impose tough new sanctions on Russia. He still says nothing nasty about Putin and refuses to call him an enemy.

15. Assad may put gas on hold; he’s close enough to winning without it. Conventional Syrian armed forces will eliminate remaining Sunni resistance and kill many civilians.

16. The strike may be part of an understanding that we will station some forces in Syria. Should we continue supporting the Kurds, our best allies there? Or abandon them to Assad and Erdogan? My preference: Keep some U.S. forces in northeast Syria as diplomatic leverage and to replace use of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase.

17. ISIS may be crushed, but its successor — the next Sunni Muslim extremist organization — is waiting to be born. How will we handle it?

18. The strike does nothing to contain the really dangerous showdown now building between Iran’s Quds Force in Syria and Israel, which could trigger the next major Mideast war.