The U.S. Response to Syria and North Korea

Law professor Charlie Dunlap shares insights on Trump's foreign policy challenges

The U.S. Response to Syria and North Korea
The U.S. Response to Syria and North Korea

The latest use of a chemical weapon on civilians in Syria and North Korea’s threatening actions in the region provide early foreign policy challenges for the Trump presidency.

To get some insights into what may transpire, Duke Today’s Steve Hartsoe reached out to law professor Charlie Dunlap. He is executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School who retired from the Air Force in 2010 as a major general.

Q: How does Trump’s “America first” stance impact our response/nonresponse to hot spots like North Korea and Syria?

Charlie Dunlap: I think the jury is still out as to how exactly Trump’s “America first” stance will influence foreign policy. My bet is that it will be very situation-specific, and in the case of North Korea, it won’t differ, initially anyway, too much from the Obama approach except to say that Trump may believe he can better motivate China to help with a solution than his predecessor was able to do. 

With respect to Syria, Trump seems to be prioritizing addressing the immediate terrorist threat to the U.S. posed by ISIS and other groups over resolving the larger civil war, and I think that’s what the American people want. Trump’s meeting today with Jordan's King Abdullah II, one of the world’s finest leaders, seemed to go well, and this is a positive sign that the president appreciates the vital role our allies can and must play in our complicated and dangerous world. An “America first” stance does not exclude “win-win” relationships where common concerns and objectives plainly exist.

Q: How do you think the Obama administration’s inaction in Syria will affect our response under Trump?

Charlie Dunlap: Obama made a huge mistake by declaring that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and then backing down from military action when the attacks occurred. Ironically, there never was a strong case under international law for the U.S. to unilaterally use force against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, and the argument under domestic law was also weak. 

Regrettably, the 2013 diplomatic solution that until recently was paraded as an Obama “success” obviously did not work. Although I don’t think Trump would declare a new “red line” of his own in Syria, if he does, and it’s violated, my bet is that the missiles will actually fly. And he may still order some strikes as the killing of the children in the recent gas attack seems to have impacted him greatly. Don’t count on Russia coming to Assad’s aid with more than heated bluster as the Russians aren’t about to militarily confront the U.S. over this issue, which I doubt they are happy with Assad about.

Q: Should the U.S. now respond militarily to halt the carnage in Syria?

Charlie Dunlap: Actually, the U.S. is responding to halt at least part of the carnage in Syria by attacking ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorists groups that are killing the helpless there, and who also pose a threat to the U.S. and the rest of the globe. 

Moreover, even if the U.S. widened its military effort substantially and neutered the Assad regime, I doubt the carnage would stop. I believe the multitude of opposition groups with differing agendas and ideologies could easily devolve into violent, internecine conflict. And, in any event, I don’t think the Trump administration or the American people generally would support a major commitment of U.S. forces into Syria simply to take down Assad.

Q: How should the U.S. respond to North Korea’s missile testing?

Charlie Dunlap: The key to a peaceful solution is held by China, so the U.S.’s best option is to encourage them to act with an authentic sense of urgency. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was right to make it clear that the military option was on the table, and I think this administration will be taken more seriously in that respect than the prior one. China may sense that, and be more disposed to put the kind of pressure on North Korea that would have a real effect.

That said, the military option is a very grave one, and I believe it would be harder to execute than some might think. It also could trigger very serious second and third order effects not just all over Asia, but everywhere. However, a North Korea with a fielded nuclear force sufficiently robust and capable to threaten South Korea’s, Japan’s and even Australia’s very existence – not to mention life on our own West Coast – is simply an unacceptable end state, especially given Pyongyang’s unstable leadership.