I must say, President Trump knows how to make life interesting, doesn’t he? Around nine in the evening on April sixth, I started getting a cataract of emails from liberal friends, emails rippling with CAPS and EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!! about Trump bombing Syria, Trump invading Syria, the Russian Army blowing US missiles out of the air, and World War Three erupting in a red nuclear glow; accompanied by an occasional Christian email about the Angel of the Apocalypse and the end of the world.
Considering the sources, I decided to take a nap and review things the next day, when some actual data turned up.
It has. Apparently, President Trump had some 60 Tomahawk missiles launched at an air base in Syria. His ostensible rationale was to smite Assad for grossly violating UN norms in killing civilians, including men, women and children in a nerve gas chemical attack — graphic photos courtesy of CNN here. The launch plan was drawn up by the Pentagon, and presented by Secretary of Defense Mattis; the National Security Team was in unanimous agreement on it. Russian forces were warned beforehand, so no Russian personnel were apparently harmed. The Russians must have passed word along to the Syrians as well, for while the air base targeted was “almost completely destroyed,” casualties were minimal if any. There were no American casualties. Assad has not been toppled, nor killed, and remains in power; Syria’s military capacity to deal with ISIS is unimpaired. America has not sent in occupying forces.
So. What does all this mean?
1. If Trump’s aim was to show the world that the United States was ready and able to hit other nations fast and hard, efficiently and accurately, he succeeded.
2. If he wanted to lower the likelihood that smaller nations would use chemical attacks on civilians, he very likely succeeded too.
3. The presumable public relations message aimed at the public was an image of a compassionate and outraged Trump avenging murdered babies. That always looks good, and very likely Trump will get a boost in public approval polls. The general public tends to approve of military actions that don’t cost American lives. If he doesn’t get a poll boost, that means either that the press’ Mad-Trump narrative is finally gaining hold, or that the polls are as useless on this matter as they were on the election. But one can anticipate a jump.
4. Those who care about human rights violations will likely approve. So will Israel. I recommend the article by Rabbi Shmuley, “In Syria, Trump Restores America’s Human Rights Leadership”
5. The Russia election hack narrative is now history. If “Putin installed the Orange Clown,” as one liberal commentator put it, the joke is on Putin. Also on any Democrats foolish enough to keep suggesting that Putin installed a puppet so as to bomb Russian allies and infringe on Russian spheres of influence. Those strings are definitively cut.
6. Apparently Trump ordered the launch prior to sitting down to dinner with Secretary Xi Jinping. I think it safe to say Xi was at somewhat off his stroke in the trade deal talks that followed, a discomfiture of which Trump doubtless made full use As Xi considers too the situation in the South China Sea, and neighboring Kim Jong-un does as well as he strokes his nuke, the image of that decimated smoking air base will likely feature in their thoughts.
7. Those who loathe Trump a priori will if anything become even more ballistic and fall all over themselves assuring everyone that Trump is a loose cannon, insane, maniacal, and the rest of the litany we have all memorized by now. They will write, march, propose even more arcane conspiracy theories, call for his immediate impeachment, etc. It’s interesting to speculate how much farther such “Resistance” can go. As Trump has demonstrated a willingness to use deadly force, I expect not too much. It is not only Trump’s external foes who were delivered a message by the strike.
8. Will Trump supporters be happy? That’s doubtful. Disdain for neoconservative-style foreign intervention was strongly emphasized by Trump while campaigning. The crude part of his base, the sort that supports any American bomb dropping on anyone as a show of American strength, will cheer. The ones dreading a replay of Iraq or Libya will cringe. Many will cringe; just how many will tell us much about the depth of Trump’s support among the Alt Right.
9. By contrast, it’s rather hard to imagine a word of criticism coming from the neoconservatives. He may find himself getting support from that wing for the first time since announcing. A major shift, that, if it continues.
10. Another shift in Trump’s favor: the NATO countries much irked by the President’s invoices for American services rendered are now vocally on board the Trump Train in support.
11. The astounding appearance of a kind word or two concerning Trump in the Times and Post recently led me to wonder if perhaps a major media corporate head or two might be coming to terms with Trump. Circumstantial evidence would appear to confirm, I thought, if media responses to the strikes were anything less than torrential in their condemnation and fear-mongering. Sure enough: comments on the Trump strike by the Post, WSJ, even the Times, even by David Brooks on PBS are not only polite but positively respectful.
Trump Enforces ‘Red Line’ on Chemical Weapons David Ignatius, Washington Post
New President Shows He’s Willing to Act Forcefully, Quickly Lee & Radnofsky, WSJ
Striking at Assad Carries Opportunities & Risks for Trump David Sanger, NY Times
So. Short term and politically, this seems to me this is a win for Trump. The “Russian puppet” line is as dead as the latest televised Zombie horde. Russia, China, North Korea and everyone else knows that the US is ready to strike, and strike fast and hard. Actually striking seriously may or may not be dumb, as circumstances indicate, but having such a reputation is probably more of a plus than a minus. Trump will probably get the usual public approval boost for military moves that cost no American lives, and for coming to the defense of gassed women and children. Even to poke Trump, liberals are unlikely to come out and say that letting women and children be gassed without consequence is a good thing. Trump also looks good too by comparison with Obama, whose own bumbling Syrian air strike involved procrastination worthy of Hamlet and cost 250 lives. What Trump has done allows him to gain several objectives at once.
Of course, the real question is, did Trump go through the above calculi before ordering the launch, or did he just go for it because, as the Times and its brethren hold, he’s nuts?
Those convinced of the latter will brush aside the Pentagon recommendation, Mattis, and the National Security team consensus, and assure that Hillary would never have done anything so nasty. One can only laugh. Hillary’s analogous move in Libya involved the murder of a head of state, destabilized the country attacked, and opened the floodgates to the migrant crisis. Trump’s was meticulous in its precision, and left the Syrian state intact and fully capable of continuing its suppression of ISIS — better capable, even, once Russia sends in fresh replacement equipment.
(Given the Pentagon origin of the strike, I find myself wondering if this might have been in the wings for a good while already, waiting for Hillary’s OK, and Trump merely inherited it, and found it good. But that is speculation.)
Though Trump appears to have done himself some timely good, it is still his to screw up depending how much further he chooses to push it. Time will tell. I will be interested in seeing if Assad stays on, and if not, who replaces him. If he survives, taking the Tomahawks as a slap on the wrist and foreswearing chemical attacks in the future, things are pretty much as they were before. If Assad goes and America installs a puppet, that will neither look good nor be good. No puppet will have the stability or credibility of Assad, whose lengthy but dogged endurance has given him something a fan base in the region.
I must say, if this bombing were undertaken for the ostensible reasons — If I thought Trump did this solely in response to the nerve gas attack — I would be seriously concerned. Use of governmental and military force for moral purposes almost invariably leads to the grossest immorality. But I suspect that what led Trump to make his move was no single motive but the fact that it allowed him to masterfully accomplish several goals at once: the more one thinks about it, the more such pluses become evident: it isn’t simply that Russia, China and North Korea are reminded that the eagle has claws and is ready to use them, for instance, or that talks between Tillerson and the Russians loom next week and Tillerson now comes in from a position of force, or that, as the Gorsuch vote looms, the “administration in disarray” stories vanish off the news as attention is focused elsewhere. Individually, none of these justify Trump’s actions. But collectively — ah, there’s the rub.
And there is a timing to these bombings that is anything but impulsive. Seriously: is it not artful that this coincides not merely with Gorsuch getting into SCOTUS, but with the bar for future Trump judicial picks dropping significantly because of Schumer’s courting of the “nuclear option” for future SCOTUS picks; with Trump’s pre-strike approval jumping to 46% (Reuters); with Ben Carson auditing Obama’s HUD and finding $520 billion in accounting errors and fraud; with a legal complaint filed against the SPLC for cheating on tax laws; with job growth as reported by ADP/Moody’s approaching near-record highs?
This could all just be coincidence, of course. But do we really not detect a certain whiff of — dare I say — efficiency and professionalism about it?
The Daily Beast, no friend of Trump’s, is taking notes of developments more soberly; a recent article entitled Don’t Get Fooled, Trump Is Winning is well worth reading. I don’t accept it’s central thesis, that Trump is driving conservative dominance across the board. Trump is not a conservative, nor a fascist, and what he is engineering is something — novel.
But is he doing it successfully? Is he winning? Very much so. And the Syrian missile strike is a characteristic example, for it is not merely one success in one area, but an action with multiple results and multiple benefits for Trump. Even when Trump fails — as he appeared to fail with Ryancare — the apparent failure conceals triumphs: the weakening of that long-gouging thorn in his side, Paul Ryan, a clearing of the decks for his own future Trumpcare, and an excuse to cast blame on Democrats and rebellious Republicans. The Syrian strikes are very much in line with this multidimensional style.
It’s interesting in this connection to note that the most passionate and vocal criticism of Trump has come from his oldest and most passionate supporters on the Alt-Right. In that regard I must especially recommend a piece by Alt-Right raconteur Stefan Molyneux that is by far the best critique of Trump’s action I’ve seen presented anywhere.
Molyneux is a Canadian philosopher and knows how to construct an argument. He constructs them here with passion and art, and there are two striking things about his presentation.
First, his argument is almost entirely moral, a truly interesting development, since much of the drive behind the Alt-Right is épater la bourgeoisie in origin, and the thought of a morally driven Al-Right is as significant and daunting a specter as morally driven liberalism.
But second, and relevant here, is how he dropped his support of Trump on this issue instantly. Molyneux supported Trump through thick and thin during the election. (His full podcast response to Trump’s election was to personally sing aloud “The Star-Spangled Banner!”) Yet, when he examines the Syrian missile strike and thinks Trump is wrong, he says it without hesitation, not hesitating to say it to a quarter of a million Trumpista viewers upon whose financial support he depends.
Aside from being a rare and wonderful demonstration of the sheer power of reason to alter a position, it stands out too as a fresh reminder of the still-electric potentiality of the political situation. Though Donald Trump has in Syria undoubtedly cut a vivid causal figure, Trump is not a cause: he is an effect. What lifted Trump up is an electorate as deeply dissatisfied with Conservative solutions as with liberal, and that dissatisfaction continues to grope for expression. The neoconservatives may embrace Trump on this, but the neoconservatives did not elect him: the base did. They may be quite as ready to discard him.
I doubt they will — yet. I disagree with Molyneux on the Syria strikes for I think he feels Trump ordered them in a growing acquiescence to neoconservative ideology. I think Trump ordered them to satisfy several goals, among them an appearance of openness to neoconservative influence that he will discard and adopt again as needed. Trump is playing a far more multidimensional game than the linear Molyneux.
But the reaction of the Molyneuxs matter — and may in the long run matter more than the reaction of Assad, or the mainstream media, or the servile heads of state now warbling their choral support.
Trump’s one deep weakness, which he (as always) deploys artfully as a strength, is his lack of ideology. Not for nothing did Soviet prosecutors and Nazi functionaries seek out and imprison or eradicate dissident intellectuals: ideologies shape policies more widely and more firmly than any one politician. That is the difference between a man and a movement; between cosmetic, superficial change, and organic enduring change.
That is why the appointment of Steve Bannon rightly rocked the liberal community, and why (possibly false) rumors of Bannon’s growing shakiness in the hierarchy matters. For if Trump becomes merely one more conventional neoconservative-backed Conservative, then he utterly collapses. He ceases to be a revolutionary figure, and instead of putting government on a genuinely novel business-management-style basis, leaves it on the business-as-usual level.
When leaves fall from the trees, winter is coming, and when intellectuals leave a political maverick, a similar barrenness falls. Trumpism will never take hold till it is articulated, And in alienating the Alt-Right, Trump is discarding the only community assisting him with this most portentous of legacies. Their current disappointment with Trump is more tiff than final divorce, so I would certainly not close the door on reconciliation. But in Trump’s shoes, I would throw them a bone, and quick. Otherwise Trump’s surgically precise missile strikes may have claimed a victim after all, and one of world-historical importance.