In the midst of Syrian war drums’ cheer and confusion, Donald Trump shreds his perceived political independence for short-term political gains.
It could hardly have been scripted any better or worse.
The US missile strikes on an Bashar al-Assad-controlled airbase near Homs, in Western Syria, shift America’s military approach to the Syrian civil war. Somewhat paradoxically, it signals a retraction to the initial stages of the war when Assad – a longtime American foe – was perceived as the main threat for Syrian stability and the primary US target.
America promptly armed Syrian rebel fighters after the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, but Barack Obama remained passive against the Syrian government with the brutal emergence of ISIS, despite strong demands from Democrat and Republican leaders to remove Assad from power.
Trump, meanwhile, has tagged ISIS as the sole enemy and he repeatedly warned Obama against attacking Syria, unsurprisingly starting in a tweet storm in 2013. He has also frequently expressed willingness to collaborate with unlikely state adversaries – such as Assad-backers Russia and Iran – to “wipe ISIS off the face of the earth.”
With this backdrop it is beyond stunning that Assad, who has been under immense international pressure, would dear to use sarin gas against his own people and thereby risk burnt children all across Western media. There can only be two options: either Assad is far more pressured domestically than what is communicated in the mainstream press; or, alternatively, Assad is testing Trump’s boundaries because of the president’s perceived military docility, as hawks like John McCain suggested when he said that Trump-administration was “partly to blame” for Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Needless to say, both options are utterly irrational because the inefficient use of chemical weapons only magnifies Assad’s initial desperations without any conceivable gains.
Thus we must entertain a third option: that either Assad or some of his close associates have simply turned insane. Up to this point, the internationally disputed Syrian president has at least managed to remain in power into the bloody war’s sixth year – nothing would undermine this more than the use of chemical weapons.
In another curious twist, Vladimir Putin declared that Russia had “multiple sources” showing this was a “false flag attack” to set up the Assad-regime, which is abnormal even by Russian conspiracy-pushing standards.
Entertaining this conspiracy theory is beyond the scope of this article, although it is clear that the Trump administration instantly capitalized on the chemical weapons reports – in typical self-assured fashion – to strike Assad.
The repeated bipartisan allegations that Russia was involved in the US election to benefit Trump has weighted the president like a nightmare. Had Trump appeared weak and hesitant in response to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapon these accusations would swell into the stratosphere. Fear of this outcome seems to be a likelier reason why Trump attacked the Syrian government than a sudden change of heart over the horrific use of sarin gas.
The other likely reason why Trump attacked so determinedly is his historically low polling, which surely is detrimental to America’s foremost popularity-seeking buffoon.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that his low approval ratings is related to the loud Trump-Putin speculations, especially considering that labeling Trump as an illegitimate, treacherous Russian puppet has been the primary strategy employed by the president’s political adversaries.
And as Trump launched a dozen cruise missiles targeting the Syrian regime, a united popular press corps loudly cheered – for obvious reasons. CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria captured the media frenzy shortly after the attack when he declared: “I think Donald Trump just became President of the United States”.
In their longstanding feud with the president, the mainstream press has finally gained traction: they’ve learned that their Russia smear campaign works, and now we’ll certainly never see the end of it.
The reassured support from the Democratic leadership is also quite telling. America’s hyper-investment over the last decades in global military dominance is the sacred marriage vow between the two major parties. Trump threatens the balance of power between liberal interventionists and neo-conservatives because he undermines their premise of US moral superiority, which is the “humanitarian” basis for America’s interventionist foreign policy.
Having a populist in charge of America is unacceptably terrifying to the two party elites; for one, a populist might actually determine that what is beneficial to elites is not necessarily beneficial to most hard-working Americans.
Most Trump supporters, though, clearly voted for a leader that would represent their nationally bound territory and interests, and not a global symbol. This clashes with America’s status as world’s policeman, which coincides with its mission to be the main “power broker” in the Middle East – despite becoming ever more unpopular in the region as they proceed in vain.
These conflicting forces explain why Trump’s political opponents and the mainstream press have mostly neglected the sheer hypocrisy in Trump’s reaction to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Since Trump assumed office, reports have shown a huge increase in civilian casualties caused by America’s indiscriminate bombings of ISIS controlled cities, especially in Raqqa.
After all, to Western interventionists, American war casualties are an inevitable outcome of their necessary burden. American caused casualties are certainly worth far less than Russia’s casualties, considering how Trump’s primary GOP competitors and Hillary Clinton publicly entertained the option of going to war against Russia over their “inhumane” bombing in Syria.
Nonetheless, military brutality in fighting ISIS – contrary to the military strikes against the Assad regime – is completely in line with Trump’s campaign promises: stay out of conflicts with limited national interest, but unleash the full might of the military when involved in combat. That is why he even went to great length defending Putin’s Syria bombings.
A “humanitarian” strike against Assad, however, was a complete U-turn. For some Trump voters any military action makes him appear strong and determined, many who are hawkish themselves and others who are Trump loyalists regardless of his actions. For many other Trump supporters, though, it made him seem like a wounded dog – an actual puppet to the permanent political elites in their own nation.
The mainstream media and the two-party elites found Trump’s air strike “beautiful” – to borrow MSNBC’s Brian Williams‘ phrasing – precisely because it signals that he can be controlled. And to many of his fans it indicates the same.
One of Trump’s greatest advantages has arguably been his lack of strong ideological convictions which contributed to his anti-establishment credentials. Now this appears like a foundation for external influence, as he no longer stands in opposition to the foreign policy of neither Clinton nor to the last GOP nominees, Bush, McCain and Romney, which, to many Trump-voters, is loosely associated with sacrificing national interests.
Trump was never a neo-conservative. In fact his strategy was to openly mock them. GOP establishment darling Jeb Bush was ridiculed by Trump partly on the basis of his hawkish brother. Yes, Trump talked aggressively – manly – from times, but he fervently railed against not only the Iraq War, but also the Libyan intervention and a potential intervention in Syria. On foreign policy he was the odd man out.
Trump’s “America First” approach did not merely delegitimize his fellow Republican hopefuls’ reckless foreign policy; it also undermined the planned Republican strategy against the Democratic presidential nominee, which conceived of placing Clinton in the Obama camp of military passivity. The GOP was supposed to flex American muscles – to preserve the empire – against the backdrop of the alleged hesitant Commander in Chief which they deemed responsible for the chaos in the Middle East. Yet in an event that took most GOP insiders with surprise, the Republican candidate was now clearly running to the “left” of Clinton on foreign policy.
Now it seems like the governing pressure finally has gotten to the old populist, though it is crucial to bear in mind that Trump always was a faux revolution. That’s why the GOP candidates’ insistence on the campaign trail that Trump was not sufficiently “conservative” and a secret big government zealot proved to be so ineffective. Trump won because he was a mere imitator of the smear tactics of the left; and he was elected by voters who sought to humiliate and limit – but not to destroy – the actual radical social engineers who many perceive as a threat to their cultural ways.
However, when the fake revolution wears off and the channeled energy no longer has a coherent message and platform, it will only leave his voters more disenchanted. Now their man in Washington fights alongside Congressional elites and special interests groups. And Trump has just steered their most important element – the war-machine – back in its right direction.
It remains to be seen if this was a one-time warning against Assad for “crossing the line”, or if this signals, like Rex Tillerson indicated, a new Syrian approach based on the conventional American principles of forced regime change and “democracy-building”. The nature of war is nonetheless equally true now as it was when George Orwell wrote: “every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.”
One thing, though, is apparent already. The stench from Washington has covered America with its bad smell – and President Trump just got himself very, very dirty.