By J.D. Munch
On Thursday, April 6, 2017, President Trump ordered an attack on the Syrian air force base from which Syria was believed to have launched its most recent chemical attack on its own people. Responses flew in, and felt very different from what we have seen to this point. Many of Trump’s far-right supporters accused him of turning against his “America First” promise, and even called Trump out for attacking Syria after he had said four years ago it would be a mistake for Obama to do so under similar circumstances. Meanwhile, world reactions were almost the opposite of what the resistance usually expects; many of the United States’ international allies praised the move, while Russia (along with Iran) strongly condemned it.
So what do we make of this development? Is Donald Trump turning over a new leaf, and taking his responsibilities as leader of the free world more seriously? Perhaps, as many of my conservative friends are suggesting, this is proof that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia can be laid to rest?
In a word, no. The strike on Syria may or may not have been a good move. Some response was certainly necessary to Bashar al-Assad’s heinous chemical attack on its own people. But the way Trump responded, and the apparent path forward, still exhibits some of the worst tendencies he has shown over time. And the need to resist Trump remains stronger than ever.
Gauging the Response
The first aspect of the strike on Syria that we need to examine is the way the strike was carried out. Attacking the airfield from which the strike occurred makes sense, in the same way much of Trump’s logic makes sense: the simplest way possible. The airfield was the obvious target if we were going to launch a responsive attack. And in the spirit of how Trump always responds to any affront, he went big: 59 tomahawk missiles thrown at the airfield. The U.S. military lit up the sky with a flexing of its military might.
We even have the initial appearance of coalition building and international cooperation. We know Trump advised Great Britain of the attack before we made it, and also gave Russia advanced notice of the strike. But look closer: Trump’s speech about the attack spoke of what he saw on television after Syria used chemical weapons on its own people, and blamed President Obama for the fact that Syria had deteriorated to this point. He responded impetuously, and while he targeted a specific base, we have no indication the attack was focused on actually destroying chemical weapons or Syrian capabilities. Indeed, Syria launched another attack on the same site as that of the prior chemical attack less than 24 hours after the U.S. attack.
One key communication from the U.S. about the bombing raid on Syria was that we wanted to “send a message.” Speculation that the message is meant for Syria, Russia, North Korea, or others who may oppose our interests has flown, and all seems to have merit. The problem is that we just spent millions of dollars in military weapons to blow up an air field, with warning to a key Assad ally in Russia, to send a message that, so far, seems ineffectual. Trump can feel good about “doing something,” and a fair amount of press coverage is praising his action. But the action himself, and the way he took it, teaches nothing new about the man. Instead, it shows another manifestation of an impetuous individual with the ability and eagerness to shoot first and ask questions later. If this looks like a reason we do not need to continue resisting Trump, look again.
A Plan Forward?
And now we need to think about what comes next. Congress has started demanding from both sides of the aisle that Trump needs to seek congressional approval for any further military action in Syria. And more generally, questions are emerging about just what the long term strategy may be. Regime change, international coalition-building, and the fight against different terrorist threats requires a thoughtful approach, a careful strategy that takes into account the complexity of the world in which we live. Given that, everyone who thinks about such things is understandably concerned about how we proceed from here.
Despite some early rhetoric suggesting Assad must be removed from office, the U.S. has announced that it has no plans to prioritize taking him out of power. So the message-sending is most likely a one-off attack, one that exhibits no signs of having deterred Assad in the least. So in the absence of any suggestion of a plan to move into a long-term strategy, we can only assume that, like so much of what Trump brings to the table, this is a lot of bluster, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Trump continues to see international relations as an exercise in power. He sees something he doesn’t like, and he attacks. Syria needed to see a response, and probably a forceful one. But for a country torn by an endless civil war, a single night of missile attacks is not going to change anything. Just as the Donald Rumsfeld “Shock and Awe” strategy did not subdue Iraq years ago, so this will not be enough to push Syria into good behavior. Moreover, they retain a staunch ally in Russia, and while the Russian response to Trump’s attack has been angry, we have seen enough complicity between Trump and that regime to suspect he will not risk further damaging the relationship.
Perhaps this will prove wrong, and the attack on Syria will lead to a careful, thought-out, targeted strategy to improve the world and our place in it. But we have no reason based on anything seen so far to believe this is the case. Rather, we need to remain vigilant in our resistance and prepare to oppose further the actions of this rash, untrustworthy individual.
Keep an Eye on the Homefront
Finally, we cannot discount the possibility that the attack on the Syrian air field represents another layer of distraction in Trump’s vast arsenal. Every time he faces scrutiny, whether for his tax returns, his Russian connections, or his policy choices, Trump throws up ever more obnoxious distractions. And right now, we have a handful: the continuing investigation into Russia’s connection to his campaign; his actions to destroy progress on the environment; his disastrous attacks on health care in our country; and his plans to change the tax code in ways that will benefit the richest Americans at the expense of the rest of us.
Regulations enacted by our government in the last eight years have served almost entirely to help protect the less powerful from intrusion by the most powerful. Trump’s attack on our regulatory structure looks to undo all of this, one regulation at a time. Taking away regulations certainly does make it easier to do business; it is easier not to pay overtime, not to worry about where chemicals are dumped, and not worry about whether workers are treated fairly. But easier is not necessarily better or right. The broad strokes of this president will make life worse for most Americans.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to profit from the presidency. A one-off attack on Syria serves up a nice distraction, a fresh layer of confusion to keep us from thinking about the money his weekend trips send flowing into his properties. It gives something new to talk about to the media sources tired of kicking the same corruption stories around, looking for new angles and ways to examine the stench coming from the bundling of the presidency with the President’s business interests. We continue to sponsor his trips through tax dollars to fund the Trump family business, but gosh, we may be considering maybe leading on the world stage. Let’s talk about that, right?
Ultimately, we can expect Trump to take some actions that are serious examples of a president doing presidential things. It remains unclear whether the attack in Syria is one of those things, but let’s even assume for now that it is. Not everything Trump does will be bad, or wrong. He may even take a thoughtful, deliberate action for the good of the country at some point. We cannot allow ourselves the all or nothing thinking that lets this lull us into lapsing in our resistance. Every day, Congress and the President are working to undermine progress on behalf of all Americans. They have perfected the Orwellian double-speak that carries this through to many in the population. We have freedom (to try to find a way to pay for health care), justice (if you believe that rich people deserve more and get it), and a pro-life movement (that ignores every life outside of the womb). The words sound nice, just as a fight to stop chemical weapons proliferation sounds nice. We cannot stop our thought process at that level. We must continue to resist.