is decidedly not on board with the generally positive reaction to Donald Trump’s
Tomahawk chop at Assad for the Syrian President’s appalling deployment of chemical
weapons on his own innocent citizens.
The use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashari
al-Assad was a grotesque act of genocide by one of the most heinous human
beings on the planet. That seems to be one
of the few undisputed, actual, real, non-fake, totally uncontested facts in
Washington, D.C. this past week.
But exactly what to do about it, when to do it, which
international partners should we engage with to do something about it, and with what
exact real near-term and long-term objectives, all, however, seem to be reasonable
questions that might have merited a modicum of reflection before inputting the
Donald Trump ran for President on a platform of
nationalism and isolationism, overtly and frequently rejecting the notion that
the United States should be the world’s “policeman.” His Secretary of State Rex
(apparently short for “Rex-it”)
Tillerson announced only last week that the United States had no interest in
further involvement in Syria. Trump’s
chief strategy advisor, Steve Bannon, led a campaign based on the philosophy
that America should be spending its money on its own citizens here in the
United States, should not be aiding immigrants or refugees, should not engage
in military adventures overseas, should make other NATO members pay more for
their defense, should decrease financial support to the United Nations, and
should decrease foreign aid. The new Trump budget proposes gaping cuts in
humanitarian aid as part of its effort to reduce the size of government and the
tax bill. As final relevant notes, Trump urged then-President Obama not to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons in 2013, and, only months ago, then-candidate Donald Trump excoriated
Hillary Clinton for advocating more activist positions – including military
incursions – in the Middle East in general and specifically in Syria. “She will
bring us into World War III,” he ominously warned.
Then Donald Trump saw a horrifying video – no doubt on
Fox News -- of the Assad carnage, and instantly all that campaign mumbo-jumbo
went out the window. Now we have to act!
I guess we are the world’s policeman,
Trump announced that some form of punishment was
necessary, and gave his military brass a day to cook up some options before launching
59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to mess up an airport tarmac while being
exceptionally careful to avoid hurting any of the people who were actually
responsible for using poison gas on babies. We are left to infer that Trump's teams held the airplanes responsible rather than the people who initiated their mission.
In fairness, the response to Trump’s action has been pretty much
“thumbs up” across the Board, from Republicans and Democrats alike, the press,
and in foreign capitals (“Hey, America is back in the bombing business!”). The reprisal
was generally considered a “commensurate” response, which is diplomacy-speak
for saying we spanked Assad firmly but not so hard that his Uncle Vladimir is
going to show up on our front porch. How
diplomats do the math of “commensurate response” is beyond me, but we now know
that 72 innocent civilians dying in horrific spasms of asphyxiation has been equated by the commensurate response cognoscenti as the equivalent of 59 Tomahawk missiles blowing up a bunch of used
I truly need help on this “commensurate” concept, and how
it was determined in this specific case. Every now and again one reads one of
those awful stories of a horrific parent locking their car on a hot day with a
baby inside, usually with catastrophic outcomes. Using
this Syrian “commensurate response” thinking, one assumes that the punishment
for the parent in our example would be to blow up the Hyundai and let the
Now – lest there be no misinterpretation – my issue is not
with Trump taking action. It is with whether it was enough action, whether it was the
right action, whether we might have wanted to weigh a few alternatives, talked to some allies, and done some long term planning before we start shooting things. My take is that this just might have been just one of those “feel good” one-off blow-up-some-shit
things that Republican presidents do when they are overwhelmed by global
complexity. We should be pleased that
Trump did something, and I suspect
that most of the people who applauded it as a “commensurate response” were
simply pleased that Trump did not go full-on wing-nut and respond with some shock-and-awful random carpet
bombing of Damascus.
Responding or not is not the issue.
However, these are curious times, and Donald Trump, in
doing what was generally acknowledged as a “reasonable” response, still managed
to reveal new and ever more worrisome things about his White House.
Did “doing the right thing” simply reveal how profoundly
ignorant he was of the situation in Syria even as he spoke about it while
Did “doing the right thing” reveal more clearly than any
action to date that he has no deep particular belief or allegiance to the
“nationalist” philosophy he ran on? And
is that good or bad?
Did he “do the right thing” to actually help the
suffering people of Syria, or just to please the press and establishment
figures in the United States whose approval Trump craves even as he disparages
Did “doing the right thing” mean that Donald Trump is
just one more in a long line of testosterone-laden conventional Republican presidents who launch missiles first and figure out the objective after?
And – finally – was one reason that Donald Trump “did the
right thing” was because he knew that 59 Tomahawk missiles in retaliation for a
poison gas attack was a can’t-miss public relations bonanza? You may call me
cynical, but I have watched this guy lie non-stop on every subject
near-and-dear to me for the last two years, so I absolutely refuse to accept his
explanations about anything at face value.There is always a "what's in it for Trump?" in his every breath.
Most striking among the rapidly unfolding events was
Donald Trump’s initial and quite visceral reaction to seeing the videotape that
showed the exact effect that poison gas has on human beings. Trump was
horrified, indignant, and bent on taking action.
However, his reaction reveals just how much this
President bases his decision process not on philosophy, principle, history, and
granular analysis, but on the latest television images that come
across on Fox News.
Donald Trump’s reaction to the sight of a chemical
weapons attack on the civilian population was as if he was being exposed to the
murderous butchery of the Assad regime for
the very first time in his life.
He held a White House press conference in which he
expressed his outrage at the poison gas attack, nothing that the action
“crossed several lines” for him. He openly volunteered that “something should
It does not take a Washington think-tank expert to
understand the mind-boggling scope of the Syrian civil war, which has killed four hundred thousand people in
the past six years. Which means that the 72 deaths in last week's chemical
weapons attack was actually a lower total
than the average daily death toll for each and every day since the conflict began.
A U.N. investigation concluded that the Syrian government
used chlorine gas twice on its own citizens in 2016. The use of chemical
weapons by Assad in 2013 resulted in 1,400 deaths. Yet Donald Trump steadfastly maintained
throughout his campaign that the United States should not get involved in
Syria, and should absolutely not allow Syrian refugees to come to the
Then he finally sees the truth in the only way he knows
how to process it: on a video on cable television news. And his entire world
view changes. Instantly. Should we be
terrified at how superficial his grasp of the world is? Or at how rapidly he
can change his mind? Or should we just
shut up and be happy that this time a video on Fox News actually forced him to
come to grips with that heretofore alien concept called reality?
The irony in Trump being saluted for his missile strike is
thick. In truth, the major reason that Assad holds power is because most Americans have not had the stomach to get into another bloody, messy, complicated,
extensive war in the Middle East. Yes, because George W. Bush made such stupid
decisions in unilaterally invading Iraq, our citizenry has become rightly squeamish
about committing our military to take out a Hitler-grade monster who is
casually slaughtering helpless citizens in order to maintain his power. Hamlet Obama endlessly debated going
into Syria and removing Assad, and one of the low points of his presidency was
his failure to act on the “red line” he drew on the use of chemical weapons.
But Obama actually did what presidents are supposed to do: take the matter
to Congress, where most Republicans
opposed any military action. (So, too, btw, did a certain private citizen named Donald Trump.) Obama also took the measure of popular sentiment,
and realized that the country could not stand to see more young Americans die to
rescue a screwed-up Middle Eastern country from itself. Obama found little support among our allies internationally, and ultimately made the decision to not take on a unilateral war that had zero support. And, one is left to infer, Obama viewed a showy volley of missiles -- like the one Trump just executed -- to be a meaningless, ineffectual gesture.
Of course, the second lesson of our Iraq folly was that
you can’t take out a government in the Middle East if you don’t know what power
will rise to fill the vacuum. Our supposed learning from Iraq was that Saddam
Hussein was a horrible butcher, but at least he could hold that patchwork
country together and prevent a savage civil war. So, too, now Assad is
protected out of a fear that Syria will fall into the hands of ISIS if there is
a vacuum of leadership.
Add it all up: George W. Bush initiates a stupid war in
Iraq, making Barack Obama extremely skittish about committing to military
involvement to take out Assad. Donald
Trump comes to office and sends a dainty and tidy little missile attack on
a sad-sack airfield, and suddenly he is John Wayne.
Which brings us to our next point: what exactly did 59
Tomahawk missiles accomplish? I have
heard it on all the news channels; advocates and talking heads braying, “Well,
we really sent Assad a message! We showed Assad that he can’t step over the
line and use chemical weapons without getting punished for it.”
Assad lost a few airplanes. He will just go buy new ones from Vladimir
Putin. Assad sat comfortably in his palace throughout the raid, serene in the
knowledge that no bombs were headed his way. He was probably sipping Chablis
and for all we know he was watching re-runs of The Apprentice.
And what about our “message?” As far as I can tell, our
“message” to Assad was that “if you want to commit genocide on your own people,
we simply will not tolerate it if you use chemical weapons. It is perfectly acceptable to us for you to
use conventional bombs, machine guns, mortar shells, and howitzers to slaughter
your people, but if you use chemical weapons, we will blow up some of your
airplanes.” Take that, mister. Now,
let’s get back to the coverage of The
What we accomplished was more akin
to self-stimulation than any real military or diplomatic triumph. You might
feel really good for a few minutes, but that feeling fades fast and you sure
as hell have not done a thing for anybody else.
Not one person in Syria is any safer from Assad today
than they were yesterday.
Not one Syrian refugee is getting any more help from the United
States today than they did yesterday.
Not one American soldier in the Middle East is any safer
today than yesterday.
By my reckoning, there is one person who really, really
benefited from sending 59 cruise missiles on a pinpoint-targeted mission
designed to have all the consequential impact of a Nerf ball hurled into a room
full of helium balloons.
And that would be Donald Trump.
Just for kicks,
go on Netflix tonight and rent the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog.” In this
classic, a president who is in the thick of a sex scandal that could drive him
from office turns to Hollywood to create an epic diversion. A wholly fictional “war with Albania” is
manufactured on Hollywood sets, and the “fake news” coverage of that war pushes
the president’s sex scandal to the back burner. Global conflict is the potent distraction from
domestic unrest; it is the preferred panacea of presidents.
It’s well documented that Americans “pull together” and
“support their president” in times of war. The nation was actually surprisingly
united at the outset of the Iraq war: we had been duped into believing that war
was necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from unleashing a wide variety of
poison gas and nuclear weaponry. Believe it or not, even Ronald Reagan’s
completely goofy escapade in Grenada was widely and enthusiastically supported
by the U.S. citizenry at the time.
Now consider the overwhelmingly negative position Donald
Trump is in less than 100 days into his term. His approval ratings are the
lowest ever recorded for a president in his first months in office. Despite
having a decisive Republican majority, he was unable to win House approval of his
single most important legislative goal, the repeal of ObamaCare. He has now twice flubbed his Muslim ban. His
embarrassing accusation of having been wiretapped by President Obama triggered
the perhaps more humiliating disclosure that his staff leaked information to
the leader of the House Intelligence Committee in an attempt to justify his
tweet. This disclosure required committee chairman Nunes to become the second Trump
administration legal official who had to recuse himself from investigating
Trump’s biggest problem of all: the ever-growing cloud of suspicion that his
campaign colluded with the Russian government to steal the 2016 Presidential
Indeed, it seems that Trump’s
primary focus these days is to generate distractions – to create competing news
stories that dilute press and popular focus on the potentially impeachable
offense inherent in the Russian collusion.
Given this bleak picture, it would not surprise me in the
least if this cynical manipulator of public opinion has realized that war is the ultimate distraction.
Appearing to be the tough leader who makes the hard decisions to bring in the
American military is just the type of thing that makes for a bump in the approval
So what should
he have done?
Wouldn’t this be a heck of a time for Donald Trump to
finally demonstrate whatever value he sees in sucking up to Vladimir Putin by
calling Putin and demanding a multinational summit to solve the carnage in
Syria and create a global military intervention that removes Assad in a way
that doesn’t cede control to ISIS?
Would it be a good time to call for a bipartisan
committee to draft specific actions that the United States can take to address
the underlying problems in Syria?
As long as Donald Trump is changing his mind about
things, what if he had said that along with the 59 cruise missiles, we are
going to open our doors to 100,000 Syrian refugees?
What if he had done something – anything – beyond trying
to solve bombs with more bombs?
A simple reminder: when Teddy Roosevelt said, "Speak softly, but carry a big stick," the "speak softly" came first. I do not recall him ever amending that phrase to imply that you can skip over the talking phase and just start dropping bombs as the first step.
Yes, this article flies in the face of a lot of
happy talk in America now. Trump supporters are ecstatic because he has finally
done something that looks vaguely presidential. Democrats are delighted because
Trump appears to have rejected the isolationism of Steve Bannon and is now
hewing to a more traditional centrist Republican – indeed, more Clintonesque -- foreign policy. Our
allies in foreign capitals overseas, who had grown worried that America
appeared to be abdicating its global responsibilities, were giddy to see us out
and bombing again.
Unless there is real follow-up, a
real desire to grapple with the underlying issues, and a real willingness to
engage in a deep, long-term, and comprehensive way to solve the Syria crisis,
then the Tomahawks were just an easy and cheap stunt that helped nobody outside
of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Watch. Donald Trump has gotten what he needs out of Syria, and you won't hear about it from his administration for months, if not years.
He's already off looking for the next distraction.
Wag the dog? More like Donald Trump wagging the country.
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