Thursday night’s cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase will be much debated in coming weeks. Critics will cite the danger of escalation or of ensnarement in a quagmire. Supporters will cite the danger of inaction. Russian and Iranian reactions will be scrutinized. All of this is important, but it misses an arguably bigger issue: how bold and risk-seeking do Americans really want the President to be?
Attacks like Thursday night’s are always gambles. They might work. But they can also fail in ways that could indeed escalate or entrap the United States in a quagmire. Barack Obama was famously cautious and risk-averse – faced with such gambles, he usually chose not to roll the dice, such as in 2013 when the Obama Administration declined to use force following a separate chemical attack in Syria. And this caution shaped all of U.S. Syria policy.
Donald Trump looks much more risk-tolerant. Perhaps as a result of his business background, he seems far more willing to make a bold move in the face of uncertainty. The strategic facts on the ground in Syria today are not significantly different than in 2013 – the real difference is a President who is much more prone to decide quickly and roll the dice when his gut instinct so directs.
This kind of bold move to accept risks can lead to short-term successes – or even a run of them. But as any poker player will tell you, no one’s luck holds forever. Even if the odds are good, if you keep rolling the dice then sooner or later everyone will roll snake-eyes.
For a business leader, this is tolerable – even admirable. After all, the societal consequences of a bad business gamble are usually small. A firm goes broke, some workers lose their jobs, investors take a haircut, but the economy as a whole moves on. Across many thousands of firms, substantial risk-tolerance actually nets out better than nervous risk-aversion: winners outnumber losers, and the country comes out ahead in the end.
For a President, though, the stakes are much higher and the perils much greater.
The Bush Administration rolled the dice by sending a handful of special forces commandoes into Taliban-held Afghanistan in 2001; together with the airstrikes they directed and assistance from Northern Alliance warlords, this gamble worked and toppled the Taliban in just a few weeks. Buoyed by this success, Bush doubled down two years later in Iraq. For a while, bold risk-taking looked like it had rid the world of two dictators, Mullah Omar in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, at little cost to Americans. Pundits talked about a revolution in military affairs, and the Administration hoped it could re-shape the politics of the entire Mideast. But U.S. luck eventually ran out: both campaigns transformed into grinding insurgencies that soon drove the cost way beyond what most Americans thought the stakes warranted and cost almost 7,000 Americans their lives.
The generals Trump so admires are subject to the same perils. Douglas MacArthur was a hero following his bold, game-changing military gamble in the 1950 Inchon landing. Pundits lauded his courage and derided the cautious plodding of less-bold leaders. But the same risk-tolerance that looked heroic at Inchon then looked foolhardy a few months later at the Yalu when a confident advance designed to put the last nails in the North Korean coffin instead triggered Chinese counter-invasion, skyrocketing casualties, near military disaster, and eventual fruitless stalemate. Sooner or later, every bold risk-taker draws a bad hand. In business, this is bad for a few; in war, it can be disastrous for many, many more.
None of this means that either Presidents or Generals can succeed by declining all gambles. All public policy is decision-making under uncertainty, and inaction has risks, too. Nor was Barack Obama uniformly unwilling to take a gamble, as the Bin Laden raid shows. Maybe Thursday’s gamble will work for Trump.
But Trump looks much more prone to such gambles than his predecessor. And if Thursday’s strike really does deter further gas attacks or rekindle peace talks in Syria, then, this will only reinforce Trump’s proclivity for risk – just as early combat results in 2001-2002 did for George W. Bush before him, and for Douglas MacArthur in 1950.
Trump’s business went bankrupt six times when bold gambles went sour; in commerce, the opportunity to try again eventually worked for Trump the CEO, and he emerged a billionaire. The Trump presidency, however, could easily yield vastly worse outcomes for an entire country when that same bold risk acceptance hits its eventual bad hand. President Trump has his finger on the nuclear button and can send thousands of troops into harm’s way. Maybe Barack Obama erred with excess caution – but do we really want his successor to try out its opposite? We may soon wish for some cautious plodding in the Oval Office.
Stephen D. Biddle is adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.