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.