Has Donald Trump’s mouth has just cost American tax payers another $50 million? That’s how much it must have cost them to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles (around $830,000 a pop) at the al-Shayrat airfield, near Homs, in Western Syria.

There was, of course, no other choice once the president had extemporised American foreign policy at the White House lectern the other day. Responding to Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas, Trump couched America’s response in terms of Assad crossing “a lot of lines”. Given Trump’s criticism of Obama’s red line, it was obvious at that moment that the American military would have to dig Trump out of the hole into which he had just dug himself.

Some might say that the American attack is a justified and therefore welcome response to a war crime, and it is true that the scenes at Khan Sheikhoun warrant a response. Yet it would be a mistake to think that last night’s attack amounted to serious punishment. The fact that the Americans apparently warned the Russians – who no doubt then warned the Syrians – in advance demonstrates how the exercise had a political and not military value. This was about saving face and not about saving lives.

What it also shows is how unsuited (or simply unpractised) Trump is to the morally grey area of international affairs where events have a tendency to drag politicians down unintended paths. There are reasons why seasoned leaders speak slowly – sometimes to the frustration of their voters – and avoid words like “heinous” and “evil” even when events cry out for that level of condemnation. Wanting to sound tougher than Obama, Trump had talked himself into a position where he was forced to do something. So something was done but it was largely done for the cameras and for the morning headlines. Something was done so Trump could stand in his Mar-a-Lago situation room and rattle his sabre. And, of course, something might also have been done to help his declining poll numbers.

Make no mistake: none of this amounts to joined-up thinking about the problems of Syria and the broader geopolitics of the Middle East. They remain as intractable as ever and if the attack has any far reaching ramifications, those ramifications have more to do with America’s relationship with Russia. It is only to be hoped that the “success” of the mission doesn’t go to Trump’s head. Tomahawk strikes are often a sign of a president’s impotence and not their power. Remember when Clinton launched cruise missiles to “kill” Bin Laden, about which George W. Bush later quipped: “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt”.

Last night’s firework display might not amount to hitting a camel in the butt but it’s hard to imagine that the strikes did much to imperil the Assad regime. Missiles fired from off shore comes as close to “risk free” war as presidents get. Rather than being a show of strength, it is a sign of the limited options available to Trump. Assad, Putin, and the Iranians will know that.

It also highlights, surely, how America still needs its diplomatic corps and why it is so perverse that the Trump administration still have a non-functioning State Department and a Secretary of State who every day resembles as man who regrets accepting a job that he never actually wanted in the first place. Syria requires a larger and much more coordinated response, which would also address Russia’s aggression in the region and in the broader international sphere. All conflicts begin and end with diplomacy. It’s just a matter of avoiding the ugly business that often happens in between, because, if diplomacy fails (and at the moment it’s hard to see how it could succeed), the alternatives get very hot very quickly.

Trump is learning what presidents before him have learned. It’s easy to talk a good fight but no fights are good fights, not even those launched from the comfort of his Florida resort. In the case of Trump, he might even have finally realised – to paraphrase Macmillan (who was misquoting Churchill) – that “golf, golf is better than war, war”.

David Waywell is a writer and cartoonist whose new book, The Secret Life of Monks, is now available.