Despite (or, probably, because of) yesterday’s grim swirl of news, we turned on Colbert last night, partly because I wanted to see if he’d pay tribute to the late, great Don Rickles. He did, but only briefly. I guess they didn’t really know each other. But the interesting thing was that, as the show started, CBS ran a little graphic at the bottom that said the show was taped before the US strikes in Syria started.
At first, I thought, well that makes sense. They don’t want people wondering why he isn’t addressing the elephant in the room. But then I wondered if it was something worse. Colbert spent most of the monologue (if not all of it) pointing out the absurdity and horrors of the Trump administration. So, maybe, they were running it because they wanted to shield themselves from criticism that Colbert was making fun of the Commander in Chief while America was at war.
That, I think, is a good way to illustrate the dangers of what is happening, and the questions around the attack. Are we at war with Syria? Are we just “sending a message?” Are we willing to take ownership over what comes next? What does it even mean to be at war with Syria? What does war mean in the age of Trump, and will this be normalized? And what will happen next?
To start, we need to understand that this is not the first time the US has launched military operation inside of Syria. Indeed, both Obama and Trump have launched hundreds and thousands of strikes against the Islamic State, in territory that they hold, in much the same way that Russia has launched strikes against rebel-held territory and fighters. But, because we give deference to a government, even one that holds only partial territory and is run by vampire criminals, this isn’t considered going to war in Syria.
So in a very real way the broad outlines of what is happening here are not new. It’s just a shift (however brief) in focus. The US has launched a targeted attack on one airbase that was the site of a hideous chemical weapons attack, in an attempt to degrade its capabilities. But the US is not at war with Syria, because in a very real sense, Syria no longer exists. We’ve been saying this is because its history has caught up with it, but there is no need for the big picture. today’s reality is clear enough. This map from Al Jazeera shows why. (This live map is more updated, but essentially the same.)
There is no “Syria” with which to be at war. There are a swirl of factions with which we can choose to align for or against, in one form or the other. These strikes were a brief alignment against Assad. Were they more than that?
You can see hints that they were not. Donald Trump, in his statement yesterday, had this to say.
My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.
Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also, to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
There are a few interesting things here. I don’t know what order of importance to put them in, but all these points overlap.
- One can lash out at the hypocrisy of bemoaning the fate of Syrians while closing off borders and demonizing all these “beautiful babies” as potential terrorists, a barking horde of fifth columnists. That’s part of his vast civilizational war. It seems like just now he woke up to the idea that these were real people.
- Part of that is because of the weight we give to chemical or biological weapons. There is a certain inanity to that: getting blown up in your bed by a bunker-buster or dying in agony on the streets from crossfire is an acceptable part of war, but it certainly isn’t fun. We’ve categorized a few different ways to die as being beyond the pale. There is a good argument for that, in a way: if war exists, there have to be some boundaries. We can’t outlaw war, nice as it would be. So let’s make sure there are some things that are beyond the pale, and even more inhumane than others.
- So in that sense, Trump’s reaction was understandable. But I think when we talk about the wider picture, this seems more and more like a one-off. Consider: the statement explicitly says “It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.” While it does talk about “changing Assad’s behavior”, it does so in the very strict context of chemical attacks. I grant that it is a little ambiguous, and can be read as his overall behavior, but nowhere does it say that these attacks are just one step beyond what he has been doing for years. In that sense, it doesn’t seem to presage a wider attack.
- Calling on “all civilized nations” (which is a weird turn of phrase, really) to end the slaughter seems to me to be taking a step back. As in, ok, we drew a line about chemical weapons, now let’s do something else.
This could be seen as the smart course of action. It establishes that the US is mostly interested in terrorism, but has a few firm lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Other people can work to actually end the war, which, having very little diplomatic structure anymore, we can’t. But we certainly showed Assad what our lines are.
The problem is what happens next? If Assad uses chemical weapons again, do we intervene? If his bombs destroy more beautiful babies, do we shrug it off like we did before? Do we move closer toward intervention in Syria against the Assad faction, and if so, are we prepared to 1) take ownership of the country, 2) protect against reprisals directed toward Alawites and pro-Assad Christians; and 3) help to create a political solution that untangles the rebel groups, Turkish/Kurdish fighters, Islamists of various stripes, etc?
The answer is no. And that’s not a terrible thing, honestly. I don’t think any US President could understand all that; it isn’t unique to our chaotic idiot. But we do have to look at this action based not on your standard President, but on the fact that it is Trump, which is why the CBS “we’re not making fun of the CinC, per se!” disclaimer was particularly bothersome.
There has never been a real Middle East strategy out of the Trump administration. It is as administration based on whims, cheap publicity stunts, and the massaging of the Fake King’s endless vanities and insecurities. While it is pretty clear that neither Mattis nor McMasters enters a military action lightly, it is impossible to shake the feeling that Trump did this to “do more” than Obama, and to maybe get some good cheap publicity. That many Democrats quickly rallied around the action (albeit cautiously), is a good sign that the wheels are set in motion for the “He’s being Presidential!” faction to come out.
Because, as I read in about 100 places, (including directly by Bibi) this didn’t just send a message to Assad: it sent it to Tehran and Pyongyang as well. The US means business. And the foreign policy establishment, not to mention the bulk of the mainstream media, takes this very seriously. We have to “show resolve”, and “be leaders”, even when that is an objectively terrible idea.
The problem is, the world doesn’t work like that. We don’t have quick victories and move on. We don’t just send messages. Tehran isn’t going to be impressed by a one-off, nor will they cower because America “showed leadership”. It’s madness. Don’t forget that both North Korea and the Iranians moves inextricably closer to nuclear weapons during the George. W. Bush administration, the peak of “let’s send a message!”. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. As I said when talking about Obama’s “tragic radicalism“,
That’s the radicalism: the notion that American “credibility” might be an important factor in NATO meetings or in editorial boardrooms, but that it isn’t in the lived reality of people who conisder themselves to have their own national destiny. This seems obvious. It generally isn’t.
These foreign policy ideas are always terrible. We’re either getting slowly dragged into to the mad logic of Syria, with a bankrupt foreign policy and zero knowledge at the head, or we’re just acting in an ad hoc manner that is the opposite of productive. We’re either moving toward a war footing while demonizing and shunning those we’re ostensibly going to war for, or we’re engaging in a series of cheap (though on one level noble) publicity stunts.
With Donald Trump, all of these could be true. Like his Presidential run, it’s a stunt designed to show the world that he is serious. He is not a man that understands consequences. We’re 11 weeks in, and we’re seeing the real consequences of such a man.