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Question: was Trump’s strike on Syria motivated by geopolitical considerations or…

Was Trump’s strike on Syria motivated by geopolitical considerations or… genuine concern about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces (and they have form for that)… or the need to demonstrate he is not in Putin’s pocket? Or something else?

Discuss.

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57 comments to Question: was Trump’s strike on Syria motivated by geopolitical considerations or…

  • Mr Ed

    I was humming to myself a Sabaton song, Back In Control, which I thought was quite apt for Mr Trump’s inauguration, and had got to the line ‘Shake them awake with the thunder of guns‘ in a tune that seems to me to be a perfect musical rendition of a Jack Russell’s brain, when I read about the strike and my first thought was that Mr Trump was helpfully letting it be known, should it not have been bleedin’ obvious to the entire World, that the USA was under new management and was not to be messed with. Anyone who uses chemical weapons crosses a line and is a potential hazard to the entire World, not just their own population, and needs to know that should matters escalate, e.g. with a punt at Israel, or Indiana, a cruise missile might be delivered post haste and it won’t leave a card and go away for collection later whatever you might do.

    The cost of being an enemy of the West went a little bit higher, from Palmira to Pyongyang.

  • Frederick Davies

    Trump is hosting Mr Xi this weekend… maybe he was just signalling to him: “this is what happens if you push my buttons”.

    FD

  • PapayaSF

    I don’t think Trump really needed to demonstrate that he wasn’t in Putin’s pocket: only deranged Democrats and leftists believe that. I think it was a geopolitical message, as Mr Ed explains, and a genuine revulsion at the use of chemical weapons.

    Of course, a plausible conspiracy theory says that Assad did not use them, but the rebels did. Assad is now winning, and so why take such a big step over that line, for little military advantage? On the other hand, Islamists often sacrifice their own for their cause, and they seemed suspiciously well-prepared to film the aftermath with many cameras.

  • The instinct of people like Obama is to demonstrate their eliteness by doing the opposite of the common-sense thing. The instinct of people like Trump is to demonstrate their eliteness by doing the common-sense thing in spades. Thus Obama’s instinct was not to bomb Assad after he used chemical weapons because bombing was what a crude, obvious person would do. Trump’s instinct was to bomb Assad after he used chemical weapons because bombing was what a crude, obvious person would do.

    In both cases, much reflection, rationalisation and consideration of collateral benefits and costs probably happened. But the initial reactions of the two men were instinctively different and that had much to do with their final decisions.

  • bobby b

    “In both cases, much reflection, rationalisation and consideration of collateral benefits and costs probably happened. But the initial reactions of the two men were instinctively different and that had much to do with their final decisions.”

    I would agree completely, and add that Obama’s non-reaction earlier has debased the credibility of the office of the US president sufficiently so that Trump felt he HAD to do what he did just to return his office’s power to what it had been before Obama ignored his own line.

    So the recent bombing was a freebie for him. If he wants to establish a more-than-average aggressiveness, look for at least one more.

  • Paul Marks

    Good comments – I have nothing to add.

  • Greg

    “…look for at least one more”

    How about Assad’s lunch room? He can say he was misunderstood by his generals first time around; “I said ‘take out his lunch table’, not ‘take out his launch capability’. Or something like that; there are cleverer folks here who can come up with a better excuse, and hopefully in the White House, too.

  • Fraser Orr

    Hmmh, based on his reaction, I think Trump was genuinely shocked by what happened in Syria and felt, against his instincts, that he had to do something. Call me naive, but I think his reaction was quite genuine. (Of course I doubt that the actions he took will be helpful, especially since they seemed to have missed damaging the runway, which is really quite hard to believe, but the photos seem to back up that claim.)

  • Alisa

    I think the answer to Perry’s question is ‘all of the above’, with Freser’s take on it very much included.

  • Alisa

    Sorry for the misspelling, Fraser…

  • Chester Draws

    The cost of being an enemy of the West went a little bit higher, from Palmira to Pyongyang.

    60 Tomahawk missiles? That doesn’t even begin to threaten the bad guys. All that says is “the US cannot put troops on the ground, they can’t even put planes in the air”. Lone idiots with trucks have killed more people in Europe than Trump’s missiles.

    This is merely virtue signalling. Trump saying “I’m a good guy — see, I go after bad guys”. In the meantime the real bad guys are laughing and are not remotely scared.

    What makes it worse is that I don’t think Assad is even guilty of ordering the (alleged) chemical attack.

  • Chester Draws

    I would agree completely, and add that Obama’s non-reaction earlier has debased the credibility of the office of the US president

    Obama had good intel that the chemical attacks are not coming from Assad. (The likely culprits are Jihadis.)

    Trump mocked Obama a couple of years ago for getting involved in this conflict, and most of Samizdata nodded along wisely. Then Trump intervenes, half-arsed, and he’s now right?

    The Libertarian in me says that this is Syria’s business. The Realist says that there is no solution the West can enforce so we should stay well out. The Humanitarian says that missiles aren’t going to help the innocent.

    Trump can’t drain the swamp while getting mired in a Middle East morass.

  • Fred the Fourth

    Fraser,
    Runways are extremely tough. Special ground-penetrating warheads are necessary. They cause large heaves in the pavement which are difficult to remove and repair. Large surface explosives just make a crater (at best) which can be fixed with fill.
    I never heard of a Tomahawk with a runway-penetrating warhead.

  • Fred the Fourth

    (Well, other than the nuke cruise missiles, that is.)

  • Ken Mitchell

    Why fire cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria, while the Chinese premier was in town? To send a message to the NORKS; “Calm down, or this might happen to YOU!”

  • Fraser Orr

    You might be right @Fred, but that kind of begs the question, doesn’t it. If your goal is to put an airport out of commission then you need to use the correct tools to do that, otherwise it is just a futile and rather embarrassing gesture. Even if you can just crater the runway, irrespective of repair time, at least it looks like you did something.

  • All right. The battle for control appears to be over. The same powers that Hillary Clinton was the poster girl for has gotten Trump.

    So the war must resume now Obama is out of the way. I did not think it would be this quick, kudos deep state.

    The attack was a failure with the Russian staff cracking jokes about it. “We have no idea where the missing 36 missiles are”. I’d guess look down stuff either destroyed them or co-opted their tiny minds. Crash now, is your new “fail safe”. It’s a quad joke. The pattern of 23 misses at the base says, to me anyway, serious EW was perhaps involved. The civilians killed were outside of the base.

    Attacks on the same area were conducted from the base. There is zero chance Assad used chemical weapons.

    You are welcome.

  • PenGun (April 9, 2017 at 3:25 am): “The same powers that Hillary Clinton was the poster girl for has gotten Trump.”

    That seems an unlikely reading, especially in view of the domestic twin-quarrel of certain powers swearing Putin and Trump colluded to give Trump the election versus Trump wanting to know who-all spied on him and his associates, and unmasked them for Obama’s and Hillary’s benefit, and these same powers resisting Nunes’ investigation.

    All Trump has done to date is “fined’ Assad for a violation. Assad (yet again) sought military advantage from illegal weapon use. Trump damaged one of Assad’s military assets, thereby imposing a countervailing cost. This is a sensible thing to do if you want the use of gas, or any other banned tactic, to remain abnormal.

    What Trump, or anyone, will do about Syria, if anything, remains as open a question as before he did this.

  • James g

    Unknowable.

    I like to think that Trump is a very good and intuitive risk manager. He has several laudable objectives, surrounds himself with clever people, and looks for low risk win win options. That he’s thinking several moves ahead whilst the media know how to move a queen one move at a time. This view seems much more feasible than the petulant egotist narrative. Part of me sees Trump as a strategic genius, or at least possibly the best qualified person to do an impossible job. This is what I hope for, and can’t see anything that really disproves this view yet. But who knows?

  • Alisa

    I’m with James G. on this: I don’t know that I’d go as far as using the terms ‘genius’ or even ‘best qualified’, but the man certainly has it. So far and for the most part his abilities in that department do make up for his several and obvious shortcomings.

  • James g

    Fascinatingly, this action hasn’t been used by his critics as evidence of all the terrible things they tell us Trump is. I presume the reason is that Trump ‘did it for the murdered kids’ and virtue signalling justice warrior types can’t allow any suggestion that by criticising Trump they don’t care about dead children. So, in these crazy times we live in, Trump has largely silenced the charge that he is a dangerous maverick… by bombing people.

  • 60 Tomahawk missiles? That doesn’t even begin to threaten the bad guys. All that says is “the US cannot put troops on the ground, they can’t even put planes in the air”. Lone idiots with trucks have killed more people in Europe than Trump’s missiles.

    Nah, completely misses the point. Forget the commentators taking about “destroying the airbase”. Airbases are pretty easy to fix, runways even more so (as has been pointed out, you need special ground penetrating runway cratering bombs (or REALLY big ones) to damage a runway in a manner that cannot be repaired within 24 hours. This strike was not about killing people… that is easy and not really all that effective. It was about destroying aircraft, which are expensive and one of the principle things that are still keeping Assad in the game. If the Syrians really did lose 20 in a day, given how precarious the Syrian Government’s situation is, this is Trump saying “if you want to be 100% dependent on the Russians for your air support, I can arrange for that to happen. And all those Russian SAMs you thought were protecting you do not mean jack shit”.

    The fact Trump does not even have to put any aircraft in the air to do that is not a sign of weakness, it is actually a sign of capability dominance.

  • Mr Ed

    Following on from what Perry just posted, might there not also be an implicit message that this time, it was an airbase; tomorrow it might be your bunker, destroyed from a ship in passing, in the night. Fancy risking that?

  • bob sykes

    The missile strike benefits ISIS. Perversely or deliberately? The only effective opponents of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria are Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias.

    While Assad is perfectly capable of gassing civilians, that he would do so at this juncture, when he and his allies are winning, is implausible. The Russian claim that the bombs hit chemical weapons being stored by the rebels makes more sense. Lots of Iraqi WMD ended up in Syria, and many people got them.

    As someone who voted for Trump, I was hoping America’s many active wars would be wound down. Instead it looks like they will be expanded, and more will be added to the list.

  • Regional

    Sarin gas has very limited shelf life and was produced at the base and the Seppos fired enough missiles for some to get through Russian counter measures to destroy the plants making the gas, just maybe?

  • …and the Seppos fired enough missiles for some to get through Russian counter measures…

    If 60 cruise missiles got through Russian SAM defences, then the SAM defences are rather flaccid.

    I would be interested to see post-strike analysis (1) how many actually hit (or near-missed) the target as opposed to being shot down en-route (if indeed any where)… (2) as to whether or not the Russians even saw the incoming strike coming and fired SAMs at it.

    Although USA gave the Russians a 30 mins warning the strike was incoming, if they told the Kremlin rather than the Russian theatre commender, then by the time any warning was passed on to tactical units unless Putin personally has the Russian air defence commander in Syria on speed-dial 😆

    Cruise missiles typically have an attack profile of Lo-Lo in a high threat environment, so unless the Russians have look-down AWACS in-theatre (which they might for all I know), my guess is the attack was a ‘flaming datum’ (i.e. the Syrians knew they were under attack when things started exploding).

    All that said, history has shown one should be very wary of early post-strike claims by either side. Over to you for some fact-checking, Bellingcat!

  • The missile strike benefits ISIS. Perversely or deliberately?

    Presumably you are aware of the very significant USAF/USN air support for the Kurds around Kobani & elsewhere, yes? Bombing the USAF crap out of the Islamic State seems like strange behaviour if the CIA created them. So sorry but that is a conspiracy theory that falls at the first fence… stop getting your news analysis from Russia Today and try to figure it out yourself (ditto the BBC). You want to know who incubated the Islamic State? Well that would be Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

    The only effective opponents of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria are Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias.

    See above. The Kurds, namely the YPG/YPJ of the PYD in Rojava (Northern Syria), and the Peshmerga in Southern Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) are quite effective when supported from the air, whereas the Syrian and Iraqi armies seem only marginally effective even with sustained air support.

  • CharlieL

    English (cockney?)rhyming slang is quite obscure. But then, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, I guess. As a yank, I just wish they had come up with one a little less unflattering.

    Did it come out of WWII by chance, along with “Over paid. over sexed, and over here.”?

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Something that didn’t happen also needs to be noted: there was no ‘red line’ announcement from Trump; he just went ahead and acted. That has got to have an effect on actors who have gotten used to talk first, or talk only, from the American government.

  • If the reaction of the online version of the “Arab Street” is sustained. We now see the most Pro Israel President in US history (with the possible exception of W) made a hero to ordinary Arabs who passionately hate Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers. I doubt it will last, but its still utterly bizarre ?

    Abu Ivanka anyone ?

    We really are living in a funhouse world.

  • Laird

    The question of the day is Trump’s motivation for that air strike, and my opinion is that it was primarily revulsion at the gassing of children. Look at his public comments and tweets. Of course, that doesn’t mean that geopolitical considerations weren’t driving many of his advisors, and probably entered into his thoughts, but those were secondary to him. But that’s just my opinion.

    @ Chester Draws: “The Libertarian in me says that this is Syria’s business. The Realist says that there is no solution the West can enforce so we should stay well out. The Humanitarian says that missiles aren’t going to help the innocent.” Agree on all points. There are no “good guys” in the Syrian conflict; the “rebels” are al Qaeda. We should not be helping either side; let them all kill each other off, the more the better. I’m sorry about the kids, but collateral damage occurs in every war and it’s not our problem. Pundits keep asserting this was done for “national security” reasons. I see absolutely no evidence of that. Prove it. “Sending a message” to Erdogan and/or Putin and/or Kim and/or Xi? Perhaps. But to me that’s not enough to justify military involvement.

    It also distresses me that outside of the hardcore pacifists almost no one is really objecting to this strike. Both sides of the political aisle are falling over themselves to laud it. Yet as far as I can see it was blatantly illegal. It can’t be a “war”, as under the Constitution only Congress can declare war (the President can merely request it). And it didn’t comply with the War Powers Resolution (it doesn’t fit into any of the permitted reasons for the use of military force specified in 50 U.S. Code §1541(c)). So regardless of the rationale or purported benefits of the strike (which I question), where is the outrage over its illegality?

  • Laird

    My computer is screwing up. I meant to write “Assad” when I wrote “Erdogan” but it won’t let me edit.

  • bobby b

    Chester Draws
    April 9, 2017 at 12:53 am

    “Obama had good intel that the chemical attacks are not coming from Assad. (The likely culprits are Jihadis.)”

    Then Obama should have made that case. He didn’t. Consequently, the US presidency lost a great deal of power and prestige and impact when he let his own red line fade. And that loss far overshadowed what he might have lost due to exposing intel sources.

  • I can see Trump has “solved for” several problems (as Scott Adams says) at the cost of seriously upsetting a large part of his base and the additional cost of giving the press a free pass on the Susan Rice scandal.
    If he can stay out of a quagmire his base may have forgiven him in four years time, but his opponents may have a lot of difficulty reigniting Russian Collusion Allegations after this.

  • PapayaSF

    @Wh00ps: The Susan Rice scandal is not going away. I’d say it has a better than 50/50 chance of being bigger than Watergate. Give it time. Watergate unfolded over several years.

  • It may well bubble back up… We will have to see.
    Another thing I have noticed is that there seems to be a greater than usual admission that Assad might not have been behind the attacks, words like “alleged” and “suspected” are being sprinkled around rather than it just being presented as a plain fact as it was during the Obama administration. I even saw a guy on Sky News saying that it would be mental (I paraphrase) for Assad to launch a gas attack at this time. I wonder if this is saving up to say Trump was mistaken later on?

  • Laird (April 9, 2017 at 3:34 pm) “Yet as far as I can see it was blatantly illegal. … where is the outrage ?”

    Absent, because it looks plausibly within the president’s executive powers as military CinC to take rapid one-off action. The US is signatory to treaties banning chemical weapons for all nations, and treaties are law in the US. Obama made a statement implying he would respond if Assad used chemical weapons. If no-one in congress told Obama he had to get a resolution through congress first, so he could lawfully respond, then Trump has a good case for saying the idea of a retaliatory strike was widely perceived as lawful.

  • Laird

    Niall, you have that backward. Congress doesn’t have to tell the President he can’t act; he has to ask for their permission (or have some other statutory basis for his action). That simply doesn’t exist here. Obama sought Congressional authorization to bomb Syria, which was denied (quite properly, in my opinion). Nothing has changed since then. The War Powers Resolution only permits the President to act unilaterally in the event of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions.” That has not occurred, and to my knowledge there is no other statutory authorization for his action. And while treaties are indeed “the law of the land” I am aware of none which permits the President to initiate a unilateral military response whenever one is violated (if you know of such please provide a citation). Sorry, but “plausibly” doesn’t cut it.

    And where do you get the idea that this was “retaliatory”? That’s a gross misuse of the word.

  • bobby b

    Laird, I believe that simple precedent has now been established that it’s only illegal if Congress, after the fact, tells the president that it’s illegal.

    And our current Congress isn’t going to do that.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    I think that Paul Marks has made the most inciteful comment, as usual.

  • Laird

    bobby b, I know of no such precedent. Citation, please. And some alleged “precedent” doesn’t override the Constitution, anyway. But since this particular Congress is falling all over itself to congratulate Trump on his action I don’t expect any pushback. Someday they will come to regret failing to assert their constitutional powers.

  • Shlomo Maistre

    The missile strike benefits ISIS. Perversely or deliberately? The only effective opponents of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria are Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias.

    While Assad is perfectly capable of gassing civilians, that he would do so at this juncture, when he and his allies are winning, is implausible. The Russian claim that the bombs hit chemical weapons being stored by the rebels makes more sense. Lots of Iraqi WMD ended up in Syria, and many people got them.

    Truth.

  • bobby b

    Laird, that was mostly an attempt at humor. Our National CEO’s have been pulling off such unauthorized “actions” since I was a teenager, and I’m not aware of any one of them who has ever been made to regret it. The old adage about how it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission is true.

  • bobby b

    As a side note, a storyline that’s gaining more credence amongst US military types is that the missiles against Assad had more to do with North Korea than might be imagined.

    Some seem to think that this was a demonstration to the visiting Xi Jinping that it is within our capability to take out Nork targets at will, and that Xi (and probably Putin) are now willingly in on the plan as a politically-acceptable way to quell the increasingly wacko Kim Jong Un who is starting to scare everyone as he descends further into madness.

    We’ve sent another large carrier group into the area. We usually do such a thing to make a point. In this case, the point is likely to set off Kim even more strongly. We may be trying to set him off today, before he finds his US-capable nukes tomorrow. China would love to see us handle the problem, for their own political purposes. Putin doesn’t seem to disagree, and seems to want to wash his hands of the place.

  • Jacob

    People always seek a “grand strategy” (geopolitical bla bla…).
    There is no grand strategy. People are incapable of grand strategies, i.e. of long range planning. There is no such thing, no matter what people say, or claim, or pretend. Long range planning is impossible. ( Having 5 year plans is a communist delusion).

    Trump’s bombing, like all such moves, was an instinctive reaction, a whim. A momentary impulse. When one becomes Commander in Chief of such a powerful machine as the US armed services one gets an itch to use it. As Madeleine Albright said before bombing Serbia: “what good is the military if you never use it?”.
    So, Trump and his aides dedicated maybe 10 minutes to considering if there were some obvious negative consequences, and when they found none they went ahead.
    It’s also a good PR move – it makes Trump look “Presidential”.

    So, no “grand strategy”. Nevertheless, looks like a good move to me.

    Catastrophes usually happen when you delude yourself that you have a genial “grand strategy” like bringing “freedom and democracy” to Iraq, or starting the “Arab spring”.

  • Y. Knott

    Ref the conspiracy theory that jihadis did it, not Assad – a question for anybody who’d know – was there an AWACS over the Mediterranean that night? Because if there was, Trump knows only too well whether Syrian fighters overflew the area at the time of the attack; he almost knows the fighters’ side #’s and whether the pilots had moustaches.

    He could likely also ask Mossad…

  • Alisa

    Laird is correct that strictly speaking the strike was illegal (as were many other such actions by other Presidents over the many years, as Bobby pointed out). However, this only goes to show how outdated that law is, and how much it is in need of revision: it was established under a vastly different geopolitical and technological reality, where it took weeks (or months?) just to get across the an ocean, let alone to carry out a military action after getting there; and where, for similar reasons, the US had not nearly as many real national interests* to protect on the global scale. I could be wrong in the technical sense, but it seems to me entirely unrealistic to expect the Executive to ask the Congress to deliberate and vote every time there is a real need for a local tactical military action somewhere in the world. *Laird and others may think that there is never such a need, just as they think that there was no such need in this particular case; that is a legitimate stance (even though personally I strongly disagree with it), but then the entire legality argument becomes moot anyway.

  • Watchman

    I still think the major point of this was to spread the story that the Russians were told the attack was coming and could do nothing about it. A lot of weight seems to be attached to Russian military might, so demonstrating that this is less mighty than generally thought is a pretty smart goal.

  • Watchman

    And as to the conspiracy-theory deluded loons who somehow believe on the basis of a tabletop analysis that Assad is in a good position and need not use chemical weapons…

    Apart from the fact that as Y. Knott points out, the US and others probably can track the relevant fighter plane that dropped the payload – and the Russian excuse (aware of this) was that a bomb hit a Sarin storage of the rebels should be noted, as this shows they are not going to dispute the link between plane, bomb and gas (just where the gas was) – the basic tenant of this case seems to be that Assad is winning and doesn’t need to do this.

    Well, ignoring the fact that this was hardly nuclear warfare but rather a single incident, probably linked to local tatical issues, if Assad, with his Iranian and Russian support and air supremacy, is winning, he’s doing it very slowly, and therefore at a cost. His army (those bits he has left) will be tired from years of fighting, and are not getting far in many places. That Assad is taking territory is undeniable – that it means he is winning is more questionable (you might as well say Germany was winning WWI in early 2018 as it took lots of territory, ignoring the fact its army and supply lines were rapidly reaching the end of their abilities).

  • Laird

    Alisa, the War Powers Resolution was adopted in 1973, in response to Nixon’s unilateral use of the military. So it was not “a vastly different geopolitical and technological reality” as you assert. Yes, we have cruise missiles today which we didn’t have then, but even in the 1970’s we had carrier fleets and long-range bombers positioned around the globe. It didn’t take “weeks or months” to position our forces; they were everywhere already. And I think it is a very good idea to ask Congress to deliberate on it when neither the United States nor any of its territories or possessions, or our military forces themselves, have been attacked. It’s not like it takes Congress very long to deliberate on such matters; it can be accomplished in days, if not hours. A little caution is not a bad thing. And if they want to make it even easier, such as requiring prior consultation only with the intelligence committees or some such, that change would be easy to enact and probably encounter little opposition.

    Clearly a large majority of Congress approves of this action, so getting its consent wouldn’t have been difficult. I have a major problem with ignoring the law and the Constitution at all, let alone doing it in such a cavalier fashion.

  • Alisa

    Laird, I was referring to Article One of the Constitution – meaning that this was a very old idea. I didn’t know about the 1973 resolution, and my argument was not legal anyway – it was practical: if the law does not or cannot work in present reality, it should be changed. You and I disagree on whether it does or could work, but that is a separate argument.

  • Alisa

    And if they want to make it even easier, such as requiring prior consultation only with the intelligence committees or some such, that change would be easy to enact and probably encounter little opposition.

    That sounds like a reasonable compromise.

  • Martin

    Make America great again morphed into Make Al Qaeda great again very quickly.Sad!

  • Make America great again morphed into Make Al Qaeda great again very quickly.Sad!

    Meh, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syrian Al Nusra (now rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) is hardly the only beneficiary of dis-aggrandising Assad. I doubt the Kurds are all that unhappy to see the Syrian government become more dependent on Russian airpower as the Russians are much less likely to bomb them at Assad’s behest. I find it hard to see much downside here.

  • Jacob

    Now we know that the strike was Ivanka’s idea. Very geopolitical…

  • […] to dig it up. But I will put one on the table that I suspect is on the right track. From a blog comment by Niall Kilmartin on just what Trump was really up to launching those missiles at […]