Trump’s Syrian missile strike was a strategic blunder with Xi

English: Celebrity Apprentice star Dennis Rodm...

English: Celebrity Apprentice star Dennis Rodman and Donald Trump (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dedicated to the memory of Dean Rusk; a Southern gentleman, an American patriot, and a public servant who understood what is at stake with China.

In statecraft, there are three types of blunders or sins. Two are punished and one brings rewards. The first is the sin of commission. The basic blunder where you do something wrong or you execute a plan or act poorly. No matter how well-intentioned, a blunder is something that does not work. Churchill’s ill-fated Dardanelles proposal is an example of a blunder. The second type of blunder is the sin of omission. Such a blunder is the failure to seize an opportunity or an opening. In this blunder, the leader does not see the chance they could take or they seize the wrong option as they have misunderstood the strategic opportunity. The final type of blunder is very rare but it does occur. It is the intentional blunder. Here, the leader does something that appears to the casual or uninformed view to be a blunder but has a deeper intent, something to lure in an opponent, so that the larger opportunity can be realized. These are very rare and difficult to arrange let alone execute. For example, a leader might blurt out what he appeared to want to keep secret or allow someone to see information because they know it will be leaked. The target believes that they can capitalize on the mistake as they cannot perceive the intent that guides it.[1]

Donald Trump appears to have committed the second type of blunder. What is surprising is that commentators have not picked up on this blunder. Why they have overlooked it is a question to be answered another time. To understand this blunder, we have to consider the context.

In a recent fawning interview, Donald Trump revealed when he told President Xi that he had launched the missile strike on Syria.[2] Here is the relevant section from the interview transcript.

BARTIROMO:  When you were with the president of China, you’re launching these military strikes.

TRUMP:  Yes.

BARTIROMO:  Was that planned?

How did that come about that it’s happening right then, because right there, you’re saying a reminder, here’s who the superpower in the world is, right?

TRUMP:  You have no idea how many people want to hear the answer to this.  I have had — I have watched speculation for three days now on what that was like (INAUDIBLE).

BARTIROMO:  When did you tell him?

TRUMP:  But I’ll tell you (INAUDIBLE)…

BARTIROMO:  Before dessert or what?

TRUMP:  But I will tell you, only because you’ve treated me so good for so long, I have to (INAUDIBLE) right?

I was sitting at the table.  We had finished dinner.  We’re now having dessert.  And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.

And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do?

And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way.  And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you.  This was during dessert.

We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.

BARTIROMO:  Unmanned?


TRUMP:  It’s so incredible.  It’s brilliant.  It’s genius.  Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five.  I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.

Now we’re going to start getting it, because, you know, the military has been cut back and depleted so badly by the past administration and by the war in Iraq, which was another disaster.

So what happens is I said we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq and I wanted you to know this. And he was eating his cake. And he was silent.[3]


What is noteworthy is that Trump seemed genuinely pleased to have had an interviewer be “good” to him.[4] I suppose that as long as interviewers are “good” to him Trump will reward them with exclusives. If this is all it takes to receive a scoop [sic], then we can expect other reporters to commence the fluff interviews. In this effort, the Fox News interviewers seem to excel at this.[5] However, the interviewer who elicited this scoop [sic] failed to understand its importance, but this is not surprising since other commentators have focused on the wrong thing or simply misunderstood what was at stake.

The chocolate cake is not the issue.

From the transcript, most commentators have focused on the chocolate cake and Trump’s self-satisfaction that Xi appeared to approve of the missile strikes. What Trump missed is an opportunity that other presidents would have worked their whole lives to achieve. President Nixon, had he been given such a golden opportunity, would have seized it with both hands. He had to work for decades to reach such an opportunity. What was this opportunity and what was Trump’s response?

Without a strategic intent, a strategic act is meaningless.

Trump was able to get Xi to a meeting in the US. During his visit, he was able to strike Syria with Tomahawk missiles in response to a chemical weapons attack by Syria. Trump appeared to have seized an opportunity to do what Obama could not or would not do. Moreover, Trump was able to announce it to Xi and thus impress him with America’s military technological prowess. For Trump, it is important to impress others so that he can feel in charge as he believes that such behaviour is impressive and one that carries more than a symbolic effect. When a strategic event, such as the missile strike, is done without a strategic effect or intent, it is reduced to a symbolic act, an event “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Trump’s blunder shows that it was an empty gesture.

What was the blunder?

When Trump told Xi he had hit Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack, he asked him what he thought. If Trump was aware of Chinese history he would have known that China are one of the few countries to have suffered severe and sustained chemical and biological warfare. China’s hatred for Japan is derived in no small part from Japan’s chemical weapons attacks, biological attacks, and experiments on Chinese during Japan’s war against China.[6] If Trump knew this, then he would know Xi’s likely response. It is Xi’s response that offered the amazing strategic opportunity that Trump appears to have missed.

But Xi apparently told Trump that he “agreed with” the attack.

“He said to me, anybody that uses gases — you could almost say or anything else — but anybody that was so brutal and uses gases to do that to young children and babies, it’s OK … he was OK with it, he was OK,” Trump said.[7]

What Trump had was the chance to put Xi on the spot and force him into a strategic decision or lose serious face. Alternatively, he could have put Xi on the backfoot and gained a strategic advantage on him. Trump did neither. Trump failed to take advantage of the strategic opportunity. At some point, he and his advisors will have to explain why.

Trump had many options that he let slip away.

Trump could have followed up Xi’s statement with the following or something like the following.

“Mr President, I am glad you agree. What would you propose I should do to a country that supports such a leader who is willing to use chemical weapons? Should countries that support such behaviour be seen as complicit in such attacks? I am sure you would agree with me that any decent country, such as yours, that opposes chemical weapons attacks would publicly condemn such attacks and stop supporting such a country. Would you stop supporting Assad so that we can stop these chemical weapons?”

Alternatively, he could have said the following.

“Mr President, I am glad you approve and endorse my approach to chemical weapons. As a decent country who has suffered the scourge of chemical weapons attacks from a monstrous regime, will you join with me to convene a summit between America, China, and Syria, to remove Assad and end the chemical weapons attacks?”

If Trump had wanted to drive a wedge between China and Russia over their support for Assad and resistance to sanctions against Syria[8], he could have said something like the following.

“Mr President, you and I know it is in our interests to avoid military action over Syria so let us agree on sanctions against Syria with America and China standing together against chemical weapons as your country has suffered greatly from chemical weapons attacks in the past. Let us take a stand against Syria. If we stand together, then only one country remains a clear supporter of chemical weapons attacks. Let this be the start of our strategic relationship.”

Even if this language is not used, Trump had an opportunity to contrast publicly China’s opposition to chemical weapons, its history as a victim of chemical weapons, against its continued support for Syria and Assad. Trump never made that public connection and with it he lost a unique moment that will never return.

Trump was given what most statesmen work their lives to achieve and he wasted it.

Faced with a unique opportunity that most statesmen work and wait a lifetime to create or exploit, Trump chose instead to brag about his shiny military toys and bask in Xi’s apparent approval. Instead of creating a strategic opportunity with China, the missile strike has become an empty symbolic gesture that far from showing Obama to be indecisive, showed that military action without a strategic goal is a sign of bluster, insecurity, and incoherence. Perhaps this is the deeper lesson that Xi took from Trump who now talks excitedly about impressing Xi and chocolate cake.


Analysis: Xi has humiliated Trump and Trump does not even know it. First Trump allowed Xi to explain that North Korea was complicated to such a degree that China had little influence. Trump accepted this story and said publicly that Xi taught him a history lesson. Trump placed himself as a student to Xi as a teacher. In China, such a relationship is between a superior, the teacher, and the inferior, the student. Trump, the President of the United States, has publicly made himself Xi’s inferior. For Xi, and China, this is a huge success and will have great consequences across Asia given the historical and cultural meaning of teacher and pupil.[9] No president, even Obama, has done such a thing. Yet, here is Trump stating it publicly and proudly. If he had staffed the State Department properly, he would have known about North Korea and called “Bullshit” when Xi told him such nonsense. China has great control over North Korea’s energy supply and its food supply.[10] Moreover, China has a large military force on the border and has likely co-opted or penetrated the North Korean military and the North Korean intelligence services. To say that China has limited influence over North Korea is laughable.[11] It is embarrassing. Yet, there is Trump proudly saying “North Korea is complicated” as if discovering a new idea.[12] One shudders to think that if North Korea collapsed that Trump would accede to the Korean peninsula being neutralized and thus erasing a major strategic and geopolitical vulnerability for China because Xi Jinping tells him it is a good idea.[13]

Playing games with the call readout has global consequences.

To add insult to injury, China releases a call readout from the telephone call between Xi and Trump. The White House, inspired by Bannon and Miller who like petulant, vindictive children want to annoy the press, released a 28-word statement about the call.[14] The most powerful nation during a crucial summit with the threat of war in the Middle East and increased tension in Korea, issues a 28-word statement. By contrast, China released a 6 paragraph copy of 420 words.[15] Their statement is balanced, measured, and comprehensive. The call readout makes Xi and China appear the competent, dignified, and confident power. If a reader did not know the context, it would appear that China was the more powerful state responsible for the status quo and America the weaker, revisionist power closed to itself, insecure, and defensive. You would think that China had an open, vibrant, independent media and America had a state controlled press.

By thwarting American media, the White House surrenders status to China.

By releasing a 28-word statement, Bannon and Miller think they are being cute. They think they are controlling the American media and winning the “media game.” What they do not realize is that they are losing the statecraft game and literally surrendering world leadership to the Chinese. China’s allies will read this communique and trust China’s views. To world opinion, China appears to be in charge. What are America’s allies to make of this? What is South Korea, Japan, and Australia to make of this? They will be embarrassed. They will be worried. It is China’s account that they will have to read to know what is happening in the United States and on the issues discussed by Xi and Trump. This is the sign of an American administration that is incompetent and does not even know it.

Americans have the luxury of decent politics without realizing what that means.

The White House, perhaps echoing the attitude shown by Bannon and Miller, provided a brief call readout. In this, they act like children. I don’t blame them because they really don’t know any better. They know little about statecraft for despite their claims to being “tough”, they accept the liberal-democratic myths about statecraft. They live in a smug, self-satisfied, protected bubble where politics is a pastime, a game, where the loser gets to retire and make money as a consultant. In the rest of the world, in places like China, if you lose you are lucky if you only end up in a corruption trial where a death sentence is a possibility.[16] China and Russia do not live within a self-satisfied bubble because for them politics is a serious business with life or death consequences.[17] I do blame someone like Michael Anton who should know better.[18] If he had attended James H. Nichols, Jr’s Thucydides course at Claremont, he would have understood statecraft, the need to maintain honour and most of all to manage the appearance as the reality of power. He spent time in Bush’s NSC so he should know better. To allow this humiliation to occur on his watch is shameful. What is truly worrying is that despite his claims to be a “thinker” about politics and statecraft, he really does not know what is going on and what needs to be done.[19] Trump’s ignorance is compounded by his advisors’ incompetence. They are burning through the legacy created by honourable, competent, decent men like Dean Rusk who knew what was at stake and would never have allowed something like this to happen. They dishonour his memory and they threaten America’s safety.

Xi has taken Trump’s measure and found him wanting.

What did Xi and his advisors learn from this summit? Xi and his advisors have learned that Trump and his advisors lack the competence to be feared, respected, or even insulted. What Xi and his advisors will be telling themselves is: “We will have no difficulty with this president.” For the first time since China entered international politics it is now more competent, confident, and composed than America. Xi and his advisors will patiently and ruthlessly exploit this advantage. Having convinced Trump that North Korea is difficult for China to influence, they will encourage North Korea’s intransigence so that they can exploit it, and most importantly they will continue to support Assad as they patiently expand their role in the Middle East and North Africa while America acts like a paper tiger with strategically meaningless missile strikes that lack a strategic goal beyond “doing something decisive.” Xi and China would never be so foolish as to waste their power, reputation, and status in this way, but Trump and his advisors are quite content to do so.

China continues to support Syria and Assad without cost or consequence.

When the next chemical weapons attack occurs, what will Trump do? Another missile strike? To achieve what end? Trump has now engaged America’s military and reputation in Syria. Xi and his advisors continue to support Assad without cost and they can humiliate Trump by encouraging Assad in his attacks and coordinating that with North Korea activity. Trump becomes a child who is being taught a lesson in statecraft by his Chinese teacher. China call readout shows Xi continuing to condemn the use of chemical weapons and asking the matter be resolved through the United Nations *even though* China has vetoed attempts to hold Syria to account in the United Nations.[20] At no point during the summit was China held to account for opposing sanctions for chemical weapons nor was its legacy as a victim of chemical weapons attacks used as public leverage to show China’s hypocrisy. Trump ends his summit with Xi without any progress on North Korea or Syria. By contrast, Xi comes away without having conceded anything and had Trump publicly tell the world Xi taught Trump a lesson about North Korea. What does Trump tell the American public? “we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.”


I bet Xi was enjoying it. I bet he was enjoying it more than Trump will ever realize.




[1] I cannot overlook the possibility that this is what Trump and his advisors have done with Xi Jinping. In this strategy, Trump intends to look foolish to give Xi status. In return, Xi will help him solve the Korean problem. The challenge is to see how Xi or any China leader would accept a unified Korea that is not beholden to them. Why would Xi accept a unified Korea that put a US ally right on its border? If Trump a strategy to unify Korea, maintain US strategic interests, and create a wedge between China and Russia, it is so well hidden that it reflects a strategic vision and patience that would put Nixon and Obama to shame. Time will tell.

[2] The full interview can be found here:


[4] Most worryingly is that Trump publicly assesses other leaders on whether they “like him”. It matters very little if a leader is liked since that is immaterial to statecraft as the leader must be respected for their word is their bond. It matters not whether someone is liked, it matters what they can or cannot do, what they will or will not do. Xi will be nice to Trump and be his friend if that gets him what he wants from America. By stating his desire to be “liked”, Trump puts himself at a disadvantage since he can be manipulated for he believes in the appearance of being liked.

[5] Jesse Watters received high praise from Trump for “being so nice to me.” See 11:26-11:34 for reference. Curiously, Rupert Murdoch’s papers in the UK always appear to menace politicians with the ever present inference that they will be “monstered”.




[9] See for example how Xi Jinping draws on Confucianism with the role of teacher and ruler. In this we see echoes of Mao’s Great Teacher, Great Leader claims. At the same time, by drawing on Confucianism with the five relationships, Trump assumes an inferior relationship to Xi Jinping’s leadership. See David Elstein, Beyond the Five Relationships: Teachers and Worthies in Early Chinese Thought. Philosophy East and West,  Vol. 62, No. 3 (JULY 2012), pp. 375-391 Published by: University of Hawai’i Press

[10] China accounts for over 60% of North Korea’s exports and 68% of its imports. To say that China has little influence over North Korea beggars belief. That Trump would proudly accept and repeat the line that China has little influence over North Korea is astounding. It is unprecedented for an American president to say this publicly.



[13] China knows that with the Korean Peninsula neutralized, it would accept the fall of North Korea to achieve that outcome, it would be a gigantic strategic and geopolitical success that would undermine America’s geopolitical capacity to contain its naval power. Does Trump understand what is at stake? Do his advisors? Do any of them even read about geopolitics? If Mr Anton had attended Bill Rood’s courses at Claremont he would have understood why the Korean Peninsula is vital for America’s geopolitical security.

[14] Bannon told the media they needed to shut up and listen. Miller told the media and the world that the president’s powers “will not be questioned.”




[18] Especially as he claims to be devoted scholar of Machiavelli’s treatises on statecraft.

[19] Mr Anton talks of prestige and he is party to this humiliation. One wonders what prestige means when it is given away without even realizing it? He wants America to avoid contempt, yet what can Xi Jinping have for Trump after this meeting? What will he do when a serious crisis emerges if Trump cannot even manage to keep from abasing himself before Xi Jinping?


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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