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Capital Journal: U.S. Action Sends a Global Message -- WSJ

8 Apr 2017 6:32 am
By Gerald F. Seib 

Syria was on the receiving end of the dozens of cruise missiles launched on President Donald Trump's orders Thursday night, but the message they sent went out to North Korea, Russia, China and Iran as well.

No international action taken by a president ever occurs in isolation. That is particularly true for a new president, whose intentions and instincts are being carefully scrutinized by other world leaders.

Mr. Trump's words, style and worldview have been especially unorthodox and difficult to read. In particular, it has been unclear which Trump persona would prevail: the America First leader, who suggested he would shrink from engaging in world hot spots to focus on America's own problems, or the tough-guy leader, who suggested he wouldn't hesitate to use American power.

The Syrian action, at least, implies that the tough guy may prevail. While the strike itself was distinctly limited -- and may or may not presage a willingness to be pulled more deeply into Syria's murderous civil war -- the picture of cruise missiles flying has ripple effects elsewhere.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson summarized the lesson this way: "I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they've made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways."

For starters, the action comes precisely as the new president is being tested by North Korea and its erratic leader, Kim Jong Un. In fact, nobody has challenged Mr. Trump more directly; the North Korean's welcome note to Mr. Trump has been a series of missile tests seemingly designed to show that his quest to develop the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to Seoul, Tokyo or Los Angeles will continue unabated.

It's hard to imagine Mr. Trump didn't have the North Koreans in the back of his mind as he made his decision to strike, or that Mr. Kim won't think he may need to be a bit more careful.

That message likely also reached the man Mr. Trump happened to be meeting Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Chinese have more influence over North Korea than anyone, and they seem perpetually torn over how to use that influence.

On the one hand, the Chinese don't like the idea of a reckless nuclear-armed North Korea busting up the scenery on the world stage. On the other hand, they worry that confronting Mr. Kim too directly could prompt even more erratic behavior by him, chaos on the Korean Peninsula and a bigger American military presence in the region in response.

If Chinese leaders are convinced that the American administration is prepared to take dramatic action to stop North Korea's nuclear program, their incentive to move on their own to prevent such a sequence of events goes up. Perhaps that is how Mr. Xi will read his options after Mr. Trump demonstrated a willingness to act in Syria.

For Russia, the Syria move may represent a rude discovery that the new American president won't be the pliant partner that the Kremlin had hoped for. The biggest change in Syria since President Barack Obama declined to take a similar military step there was a dramatic escalation in Russia's presence on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Russians and their Syrian patrons may have thought that presence would shield Mr. Assad from American hostilities. And they may have thought that doubly true after Mr. Trump, who campaigned on a platform of improving relations with Russia and skepticism about involvement in more Middle Eastern fights, took office.

Those presumptions now are, at a minimum, called into question. Mr. Assad has to recalibrate the risks he is taking in how he conducts himself in his country's civil war. He also may have to discard the idea that the new American administration would be content to leave him and his regime in place, an idea that may well have been planted by some early and careless administration comments.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin also has to reconsider whether the new American president will be a partner in Syria to fight Islamic State forces there, as often suggested during the campaign, or an obstacle in the Kremlin's efforts to prop up the Syrian regime.

Finally, Iran, Syria's other big international enabler, has to think anew about the potential costs of its own involvement in Syria -- as well as the consequences it might face if it breaks out of the deal it struck to curb its nuclear activities.

All these actors are capable of making big trouble for Mr. Trump if they feel threatened, but they also might choose to moderate their behavior if they think the new president isn't withdrawing from the world stage.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 08, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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