There’s a cottage industry constantly calling on U.S. presidents to bomb something because that will make them seem serious. Unfortunately the use of heavy ordnance, when it comes, does not seem to impose a concomitant obligation on the rest of us to be serious too. We get to say whatever the hell we want, apparently.
“This is the first military action under this president,” Anderson Cooper said (at about the 24-second mark in the linked video) Thursday night on CNN. Well, no it’s not. The Yakla raid in Yemen was on Jan. 29. Even if you accept that the planning for the raid happened before Trump’s inauguration, he gave the green light, sat CPO William Owens’s widow in the gallery for his speech to Congress, and has given a typically varied assortment of explanations for how, or even whether, the raid went poorly. Trump has tripled Barack Obama’s already-high rate of drone strikes on various targets throughout the Middle East and North Africa. On March 2 alone they hit 25 Yemeni targets.
Actions have consequences. For all I know, maybe this sharply increased operational tempo will increase progress against ISIS and other militant groups, but in the meantime a lot of innocent people are dying. Civilian casualties, which were already increasing in the last months of the Obama presidency, are up even more sharply under Trump. That was a really nasty business in Mosul the other day, for instance.
So it’s great if Thursday’s Tomahawk strikes scratch some kind of Washington itch, but they come in a broader context that doesn’t go away just because there’s a TV panel. And it’s odd to hear somebody as thoughtful as Fareed Zakaria announce that “Donald Trump became president of the United States last night.”
Zakaria’s remark, it became clear as he continued explaining himself, had more to do with the vocabulary Trump used as he spoke than with his choice of ordnance. “For the first time really as president,” Zakaria said, “he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world.” But again, this is mostly projection. The remarks Trump actually delivered referred only in passing to the United Nations, and cannot on the whole be taken as a manifesto for a new presidential realism.
“Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” the President said from his Florida country club. “And also, to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”
Also. While you’re at it.
“We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed,” the President continued. “And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail.” This is rather far from a plan.
So Zakaria’s comment—that Trump was not, but is now president—can be taken to mean two things. First, it’s a kind of victory cry by America’s liberal interventionists over the Breitbart crowd who view any U.S. intervention into the Syria cauldron as a fuzzy-headed departure from the virile isolationism that Steve Bannon, channeling the spirit of Charles Lindbergh, incarnates in the White House. So if Zakaria is in a good mood, it’s for many of the same reasons why Trump’s European populist admirers, including Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, are worried.
The other thing that’s going on is like what we saw after Trump managed to read a speech to Congress without mispronouncing the name of a major state or stabbing the Speaker with a salad fork: An avalanche of praise for his new presidential tone. “All that tumult feels like yesteryear,” the Washington Post‘s White House bureau chief actually wrote on Twitter. Don’t worry, the tumult came back soon enough.
Plainly, there is a strong desire on the part of people who cover this president to cover a normal president. They yearn for days when actions emanating from the White House will be coherent, planned and good, because if there are never any such days then why even show up? Covering corruption, improvisation, contradiction, ego and fiat are all entertaining. But for all their snide affectation, political reporters are idealists too, and it would make them feel better if they were, at least once in a while, covering someone who does things to advance the glory of the Republic. Even Nixon called the Apollo astronauts.
There is also a lingering sense of shame, among a lot of people who liked Barack Obama as president, over the way he handled Syria. Obama announced “red lines” he declined to enforce. He made Congress vote to authorize military action and then carried out no military action. When Obama left office, Assad was still there and he still had chemical weapons. So there’s a sense that, however distasteful it may feel, it’s fallen to Trump to finish Obama’s unfinished work.
I’m not sure I can buy even that reflex. It’s not at all clear that Thursday’s strike marks a new resolve to deprive Assad of chemical weapons or indeed to change his strategic footing in any serious way. Rex Tillerson sounded last night like he’s pretty sure the work is done. “We feel that the strike itself was proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack,” he said.
Tomahawk cruise missiles can be part of elaborate campaigns lasting many months to pursue clearly defined strategic objectives. But historically they’ve also sometimes been what a U.S. president sends when he knows he’s angry but he hasn’t worked out any other details. A president, at least a good one, makes plans. It’s hardly clear Trump has any plans for Syria worthy of the name.
And finally, if the Trump administration’s tactical objective is to constrain Assad’s use of chemical weapons, to increase their cost of use, to brush him back from the plate rather than putting him out of business altogether, then that goal is identical to Barack Obama’s. Obama’s method—roping the Russians into a joint effort to get Assad to declare and dispose of his chemical weapons stocks—was highly dissatisfying, plainly limited in its success, and morally not at all uplifting. But by the end of his presidency, he was getting the odd good review, including from surprising sources. Benjamin Netanyahu famously said that Obama’s elaborate Syria play was “the one ray of light in a very dark region.”
“It’s not complete yet,” the Israeli prime minister went on. “We are concerned that they may not have declared all of their capacity. But what has been removed has been removed. We’re talking about 90 percent. We appreciate the effort that has been made and the results that have been achieved.”
This magazine and other sources will be full of analysts who can tell you what should be done in Syria and how to achieve complete victory. I’m afraid that on this file in particular, I’m fresh out of certainty. What I do know is that Trump’s latest gesture, executed in flat contradiction of his own statements on the conflict that go back years and were repeated dozens of times, is unlikely to mark the start of a new era of presidential coherence and moral seriousness. Sorry.