The U.S. air strikes on Syria’s air force ordered by Donald Trump to answer Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas on civilian populations has been received with acclaim “on both sides of the aisle”, as the quaint saying goes. Many columnists and commentators praise this “bold” move, often preceded by a recitation of their own unimpeachable anti-Trump credentials. Fareed Zakaria of CNN announced, with suitable gravitas, that today Donald Trump has become a man…no, that’s wrong…a president, sort of a bar mitzvah by fire. Senators Sanders and Leahy of Vermont, non-interventionist right-wing Republicans, and several other Democrats opposed the raid, but Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck “No Surprise There” Schumer, and other Dems supported it and in general Congressional opposition was muted. And Adam Johnson on Alternet shows how five major U.S. newspapers (Times, Post, WSJ) ran 18 opinion pieces in favor of the bombings, none against (opinion pieces need not reflect the editorial board’s view), while TVs talking heads likewise fell in line.
The most popular theme resurrects Trump’s emotional life by informing us that the pictures and videos of Syrian children choking to death moved him to change course. We also learned that his team had informed those briefing him that Donald is a “visual learner” and thus much more responsive to strong images than to those increasingly obsolete and bothersome things like words and ideas.
There were comments that Trump finally turned his foreign policy over to the big boys – Mattis and Kelly, military hawk. We are given American foreign policy as Hollywood fable: the clueless leader who comes into his own in a crisis, moved by the sentiments of the heart; his turning to the real men in the room instead of the nut-jobs and callow family members he’s relied on till now; a man who didn’t whine once during his announcements; and who finally showed that bully Vladimir that he wasn’t his tool anymore.
It is tricky to question a seemingly successful operation. We hurt Syria’s capacity to attack its civilian population! How could that be bad?
Let me count the ways.
1. A tactical bombing of an airfield with sitting planes is easy if one ignores the context. But now what? Do we look for other low-risk targets in order to garner more applause? We bombed Vietnam relentlessly for a decade and lost against the rag-tag army and guerrillas of a poor, rural nation. We’ve been bombing Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen for years and haven’t solved those wars either. So where do we go from here? We either retreat from the latest sortie or become increasingly enmeshed.
2. Less than a day after our attack, Syrian warplanes took off from the same airfield and bombed the same town that suffered the gas attack. We didn’t cripple Assad’s military capacity. Even if we had destroyed the airfield, there’s so many ways to destroy civilian populations. The U.S. knows that as well as anyone. So again, where do we go from here? Have we advanced the chance for a cease-fire?
3. It is disingenuous to accept the decision-making scenario as presented. Trump the visual thinker with no attention span and impatient with reflective and analytic thought, is shown horrible pictures of human suffering. He is so upset he turns to the big boys in the room. They implement a “do-it-in-our-sleep” sortie against a popular enemy. Congrats. Break out the bubbly at Mar-a-Lago. But…
A. Politics 101: when things suck at home, go to war. That’s elementary. Trump’s administration is in disarray. Nothing like a good bombing to make a guy look decisive and in command. CNN, lately critical of Trump but also uncomfortable in opposing the powers that be, falls all over itself in praise of the bombing just as they toed the line on Iraq and Afghanistan.
B. Russia and Syria deny Syria’s role in the gas attack. Granted, their credibility is very suspect on the matter, though Canada’s Justin Trudeau also cited uncertainty over who perpetrated it. But let’s admit the likelihood that it was Assad. It’s fairly obvious the attack was encouraged by diplomatic gaffes by Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. On March 30th Haley announced the U.S. was no longer focused on removing Assad. This was five weeks after proclaiming that removing Assad was one of our top priorities. It was also one day after she told the Council of Foreign Relations that Assad is a “big hindrance in moving forward.” Quite a turn-around in one day! How and why did that happen? At the very least, the March 30th statement emboldened Assad to intensify his attacks on civilians.
C. The military hawks who oversaw the attack do not exactly inspire confidence in the future of American foreign policy. Our foreign policy is not supposed to be in the hands of the military – not constitutionally, not ethically, and not according to long-standing tradition.
D. Let’s say Trump was moved to act by pictures of suffering children. We all were horrified by them. Horrible things happen every day in the world and if we can prevent them, I’m all for it. But let’s not get carried away over this particular action. It was, after all, a bombing. It was not a diplomatic coup, despite attempts to make it appear so. It was not a decisive military blow. It did not interfere with Assad’s ability to destroy his own citizens. We didn’t airlift a hundred Syrian children to safety. We found our solutions in bombs, as we’ve always done. So why is everybody cheering?
E. While one Trump shill sees this as a sign of Trump’s independence from Putin…wait a minute? Are they actually congratulating the President of the United States because he may have shown that he is not a Russian stooge? Is “maybe not a traitor” the new statesmanship that Trump should be congratulated for? At any rate, as Chris Matthews observed on “Hardball”, the bombing could be a ploy to make it appear that Trump was willing to defy Vlad and thus allay suspicions raised by the Russian investigation. Later, the two could cozy up as planned. True or not, Washington is now making a big show out of its demands for Russia to give up on Assad. We’re watching charades within charades and what’s next is anybody’s guess.
Putin isn’t worried about Assad, per se, but about Russia’s perceived role in achieving a settlement and its ongoing presence in the Mideast. Did Putin okay the bombing through diplomatic channels? Did he calculate that it will further undermine U.S. power and distract the U.S. from Ukraine and other regions? Did Trump use the bombing as a bargaining chip to settle his own accounts with Putin? Is Matthews’ theory correct? One thing is certain: the view that our attack was a bold move that shifted the balance of influence in Syria is a fantasy.
4. Can people do the right thing for wrong reasons? Of course. But in evaluating whether an act is “the right thing” we have to look beyond the immediate result. The attack is being treated as a decisive assertion of American power. But we have no end-game in Syria; we were deeply involved in the opening gambits, supporting any group opposed to Assad, and we probably helped set the uprising against him in motion. Some groups we supported are now fighting each other; the vacuum we helped create led to the rise of the Islamic State. We waded into the whole conflict with lobbyists anticipating an orgy of arms dealing which they pursued with the avidity of a swinger chasing sex partners. Without our weapons, the “Caliphate” might still be a madman’s dream.
We have no idea what a post-Syria Assad will look like, especially given the forces we’ve set in motion. In the chaos that is Syria and Iraq, one of our most vital allies, Turkey, is juggling separatist Kurdish factions, active Soviet military operations on its borders, and internal terrorist threats, not to mention its own erratic head of state. Trump has decimated the State Department and diplomatic corps, encouraged hawks in both parties, and now relies ono upon his son-in-law and a couple of favored military men to determine foreign policy. So the bombing raid for which Trump is congratulated is hardly significant and the cheerleading on the sidelines drowns out any but those fabled “ancestral voices prophesying war”
Militarily, the Assad regime is no threat to us. Our Mid-East policy since 9/11 has been, frankly, to destroy national regimes and fragment national power unless the regimes (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and to an extent Egypt) cooperate in regard to oil, military bases, arms sales, and massive corporate (construction and arms) contracts that recycle oil profits back to America’s wealthiest class. To the rest of the world, our role is as transparent as water from a mountain stream. Yet many Americans and media voices continue to be deluded by such children’s stories as Trump’s anguish over the suffering children and the “big boys” stepping in to bring justice to Syria, allowing America to act like the good guys we always knew ourselves to be.
Now we are told Congress must debate whether we go to war in Syria. However, the precedent is set. The president can bomb away to his heart’s content while Congress dithers. Who knows, maybe North Korea is next. Trump had his brief military kick. What’s next on the agenda? Horrific photos from North Korea, where we haven’t ruled out the use of nuclear weapons? And who verifies the images’ veracity? As Trump’s presidency unravels will he grow more desperate? Will he be dancing at the end of a string, jerked this way and that by trumped-up evidence, manufactured attacks, and photoshopped images? Hell, we haven’t finished with the last batch of disastrous wars. Are we ready for the next batch?