For an American president, bombing is easier than thinking. For an American lawmaker or opinion-maker, it costs nothing to celebrate the resolve of a president who bombs. On the evening of April 6, Donald Trump reversed his apparent policy of declining to attack the Assad regime and fired fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian government airfield. The cause was a report that the Syrian air force had dropped a chemical bomb that killed at least seventy-two civilians. John McCain and Lindsey Graham—who have been among Trump’s most strident critics in the Republican Party, and who have long been calling for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad—immediately applauded the action. The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, approved it as “proportional.” Trump’s rapid and definitive response was likewise praised by Fareed Zakaria: “I think Donald Trump became president” by bombing—a true president at last (he meant) after weeks of dithering and confusion. Ezra Klein also gave a qualified justification of the missile strike against a nation that has never attacked the United States: Trump had acted “well within the norms of American foreign policy.”
This was a peculiar turn of fortune. A president who for many months, both before he won the election and after, had been characterized as dangerously unstable by the people he calls the establishment, now witnessed the same establishment promote him to the ranks of the sane and responsible. What conclusion will be drawn by the mind of Donald Trump?
There was a risk in the sudden violence. Syria is a battlefield in which Russia, too, has fought and built up military assets and invested considerable diplomatic prestige. But Trump had taken the precaution of warning the Russians to clear their people from the target area; and when a Russian UN envoy was asked what he meant when he warned of “negative consequences” of the bombing, he chose not to mention US-Russian relations. He said: “Look at Iraq, look at Libya.”
By the end of George W. Bush’s second term, the Iraq war had displaced almost five million people in a country of 27 million. By the end of Obama’s second term, the Libya war had displaced 400,000 in a country of six million. These are facts the world may choose not to forget as quickly as Americans often do. Five or six years ago, it was the satirical usage of a few critics to speak of “multiple wars” or “perpetual war”; but mainstream journalists now speak casually of how an adviser or a general needs credibility for “our next war.” But look at Iraq, look at Libya.
Coverage of the chemical attack in Syria—and of the American missile strike that issued as a “punishment” of Assad to enforce “international norms”—was apparently supported by evidence satisfying to journalists and editors. But here, as in the treatment of secret information about Trump and Russia, there was an order of logic in the reporting that should have set off an alarm. For something new was happening in both cases: the major newspapers, networks, and websites vouched for conclusions—regarding the accuracy of the inferences about Trump; regarding the source and motive of the chemical attack in Syria—which they described as having been drawn from a sound interpretation of solid evidence. Yet only conclusions were disclosed. The evidence was revealed in the broadest outlines and with little effort to trace the path by which it acquired legitimacy. So, in the latest instance in Syria, the most clear-cut evidence provided to reporters was simply “an image of the radar track of a Syrian airplane leaving the airfield and flying to the chemical strike area Tuesday.” It was assumed by reporters that this meant the use of chemical weapons had been ordered by Assad and that the incident followed a regular pattern of chemical attacks by the Syrian government. The last assumption, however, was exceedingly careless.
The documented attacks that the reporters seemed to have in mind occurred on March 19, 2013, near Aleppo, when more than two dozen were killed; on August 21, 2013 in Ghouta, near Damascus, when many hundreds died of chemical poisoning; and (exactly two years later) on August 21, 2015, in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo. A Reuters story by Anthony Deutsch several weeks after the third incident summarized the conclusion by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that banned weapons had indeed been used; the same story revealed the uncertainty of the investigating body concerning which side had used the weapons. Deutsch spoke of “a growing body of evidence that the Islamic State group has obtained, and is using, chemical weapons in both Iraq and Syria.” These indications have scarcely been mentioned in recent US reporting on Syria. The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have had them in mind when, in his initial response to the recent incident, he said that there are “continuing questions…about who is responsible for these horrible attacks.”
None of this affects what Americans should think of Bashar al-Assad. Before the war began, Assad was one more regional despot like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who, though oppressive and illiberal, posed little international threat. In the civil war, Assad and his allies, Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, have committed atrocities and inflicted suffering on the Syrian population on a scale that can never be atoned for. His enemies—ISIS, Al-Nusra (the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda), and various proxy warriors bankrolled by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia— have often done the same. Which of these parties you hate the most, if you are Syrian, may depend on which has killed the largest numbers of your family.
Now, more than five years into this intractable conflict, is it plausible that the United States can alleviate the sufferings caused by Assad—and by his enemies, too—with a full-scale military attempt to overthrow the government of Syria? The American establishment seems to have answered almost overnight with an automatic yes. But the execution of this policy, while keeping us in the fight against ISIS, would add to our list of enemies the other most formidable military powers in the country, namely the armed forces of Syria, Iran’s proxies, and Russia. The stated object of the policy would be to stop the bloodshed, but it would entail a drastic acceleration of violence.
Go back a moment to the lesson that Trump is apt to learn from events of the past week. Would it be wrong to reduce it to the following? “You can make some highly respectable new friends by throwing missiles at an obnoxious foreign power. It works like a dream so long as you do it fast and give it a humanitarian gloss.” In the sheer quantity of the attention paid, and the narrowness of the attention, something terrible about our political culture has come to light. Consider The New York Times on Friday April 7. The morning edition featured no fewer than nineteen stories on the Syria missile strike, with headlines varied and supple: “Anguish Sways the Isolationist”; “A ‘Significant Blow’ to U.S. Ties, Putin Says”; “A One-Time Strike Aimed at Halting Use of Nerve Gas”; “63 Hours: From Sarin Attack to Missiles Falling”; “Trump Fires a Warning Shot in the Bannon-Kushner Battle”; “An Unexpected Change of Subject at an Elegant Diplomatic Dinner”; “Trump’s View of Syria: How it Evolved, in Tweets”; “Trump’s Decision Has Some Critics Cheering and Some Supporters Booing”; “GOP Lawmakers, Once Skeptical of Obama Plan to Strike Syria, Back Trump”; “Was Missile Attack on Syria Illegal? Explaining Presidential War Powers”; “Syrians Opposed to Assad Feel Sense of Satisfaction, but Also Fear Reprisals”; “Once Critical of President, Refugees Offer Approval”; “A Global Divide Over a Missile Attack”; “Missile Strike Signals a New Reality in Syria for Friends and Foes Alike”; “Measuring Action Against a Government Already Under Siege”; “Wasn’t Syria’s Stock of Chemical Weapons Destroyed? It’s Complicated”; “Asking If U.S. Remarks Helped Embolden Assad”; “Who Was in the Room With Him? Trump’s Advisers During the Strike”; “For Tillerson and McMaster, Action on Syria Is Chance to Step Out of the Shadows.”
The headlines are a shade less redundant than the stories themselves; but the words that inevitably stand out are attack, strike, decision, action, Syria, Syrians, and (most of all) Trump. Though a critical note is struck in some places, along with a decorous show of scruple concerning the balance between executive action and constitutional law (with law on the whole portrayed sympathetically), the overall message is never in doubt. The newspaper of record is telling a president whose legitimacy it has challenged ever since the election—a president who craves approval almost as much as he loves attention—“Now you have made yourself important in a good way.”
Democratic lawmakers have done much the same: Senator Chuck Schumer, when he gave the questionably legal Tomahawk attack his vote of confidence last Thursday, was only following the path of Richard Gephardt when in October 2002 he stood beside George W. Bush in the Rose Garden to display a unified front supporting a possible war against Iraq. Indeed, in the years since 2002, there has not been a Middle East war for which the United States did not invoke a humanitarian motive: to free Afghanistan from the religious tyranny of the Taliban; to create a multicultural democracy in Iraq, in which Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis could participate equally; to allow the Arab Spring to flourish in Libya by awarding the rebels the victory they deserved. From the Libya catastrophe, Barack Obama may have learned something but his party learned nothing.
Meanwhile, it looks as if the relentless Democratic strategy of pinning Trump to Russia has turned back to plague its inventors. Deprecation of Putin and all things Russian was the necessary means to delegitimize Trump, as the Democrats saw it, but the end in view was the destruction of Trump. Weirdly, the Democrats lost sight of this and now Trump has gone up against Putin and rallied the Democrats to back him. They are left holding Trump as their indispensable ally and humanitarian war as a favorite cause, which at an opportune moment could displace any other: the cause of climate change for example.
Put this down to a lack of political talent and consistent thinking. The larger discouraging fact is that almost by definition, a member of today’s Democratic Party has no interest in foreign policy. However clouded by militarism the judgment of senators like McCain and Graham and their understudy Tom Cotton may be—and however simple and sweeping the nonintervention doctrine of Rand Paul—these Republicans are actually people who have information and opinions they are ready to espouse. Democrats have more to say about Obamacare and abortion and trans bathrooms than they do about Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Russia. But what you can do at home is limited by the energy and dollars given to enterprises abroad. In February, the Defense Department reported that over the past two-and-a-half years, the United States has spent $11.9 billion fighting ISIS alone: an average of $12.8 million per day.
On April 9, on the CNN news show GPS, General David Petraeus summoned Americans to a lengthened Syrian war. It would not, he said, be a war lasting just a few years beyond 2017, but “a generational struggle,” a venture that would require us to measure out in careful quantities the necessary “blood and treasure.” Petraeus may yet run for president. He is looking ahead to a merger between a new cold war and a great-power scramble for the Middle East. In response to this extraordinary proposal, his interviewer, Fareed Zakaria, offered no challenge and no question.