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 launch codes.
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, after all.
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 Russian planes.
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 parent walk.
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 campaigning?
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 them?
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 be done.”
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 United States.
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 Masters.
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 election.
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 ratings.
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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