I’m not sure if neophilia is a real disease or a literary invention, but having a love for novelty certainly describes a large part of the American and indeed the international press corps. My neophiliac colleagues and I love news, particularly news that changes the paradigm, news that lets you describe the world in a different way, news that means you can abandon the previous, stale conversation and turn with relief to something fresh.
President Trump’s decision to bomb an air base in Syria seems like exactly that kind of news. It changes the paradigm because it apparently contradicts everything Trump has ever said about Syria, either as president, as a candidate or even before that. For as long as he has been in public life, Trump has opposed humanitarian military intervention, which he has always interpreted in the most cynical fashion possible. On Oct. 9, 2012, he tweeted, for example:
On Aug. 29, 2013, he tweeted again:
And Sept. 5, 2013, he tweeted — in all caps:
Now it seems that Trump has had an abrupt change of heart, thanks, he says, to the (truly horrific) photographs of children dying of chemical poisoning in Idlib province. Relieved to see this American use of military power, pundits and journalists have filled the airwaves with a thousand different speculations. A BBC producer called me to ask whether I thought that this means “a new departure.” A CNN pundit and Post columnist declared that Trump, with this bombing raid, “became president of the United States.”
Really? Look again at what just happened: A president who has told us he believes military intervention happens when “poll numbers are in tailspin” has just intervened while his poll numbers are in a tailspin. A president who is famous for his abrupt pivots from one opinion to another has abruptly pivoted from one opinion to another. A president with no strategic vision makes a gesture that is not part of any strategic vision, instead taking a military decision based on pictures he saw on cable television. Why is any of that new?
Since the attack, Syrian military aircraft have ostentatiously taken off from the base that was supposedly bombed; one report, unconfirmed as of now, says that Russian aircraft have already begun bombing civilians in Idlib province in retaliation for the American strike. Supposing that’s true — now what? Has our president thought any of this through? Does our secretary of state have a plan he can reveal?
Though it’s no fun to end the party, I am afraid that this time, the neophiliacs have nothing to celebrate. It’s time to go back to the original story: a dysfunctional White House, a president who is mixing his business interests with politics, and a campaign whose relationship to Russian trolls and hackers has yet to be elucidated. Let’s get to the bottom of those stories before we move on to a new one.