“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow,” then-President Obama said last year, defending his decision not to unilaterally strike Syria in 2013. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions.”
Last week, by impulsively ordering a military strike against a Syrian air base, President Trump both followed the playbook and fell into the trap. To be clear, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun is a heinous crime. Almost six years of civil war in Syria have led to nearly half a million dead and millions more displaced, a humanitarian crisis worsened by the Trump administration’s cruel and senseless attempts to ban Syrian refugees. The human suffering has been horrific to watch. Yet despite the fervor of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, which fetishizes the purported “credibility” that accompanies the use of force, it remains folly to think that Trump’s military action will help end the carnage.
It is a testament to the absurdity of the presidential “playbook” that perhaps the most irresponsible act of Trump’s madhouse presidency has also been one of the most widely applauded. Suddenly, much of the same media and political establishment that has routinely portrayed Trump as an unstable and inept authoritarian are ecstatic that he decided to drop bombs in the Middle East. Airing footage of the assault, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams admired the “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments.” Five major newspapers collectively published 18 pieces that endorsed the strikes or argued they were insufficient, according to media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.
The decision to strike also earned Trump rare bipartisan praise in Congress. In a statement, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) declared that “President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action. For that, he deserves the support of the American people.” Likewise, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the attack “the right thing to do.”
But there is little evidence that the strike accomplished anything beyond a temporary popularity boost for a flailing president. If Trump’s goal was to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, the punishment was effectively nothing more than a timeout, as Syrian warplanes resumed use of the targeted air base less than 24 hours after it was hit. And if Trump has a coherent strategy for what happens next, he has failed to communicate it to the American people or the international community.
At this point, the primary consequence of Trump’s muscle-flexing has been to dramatically increase tensions with Assad’s most important ally, Russia. Defying the charge that he is “Putin’s puppet” has conveniently quieted Trump’s domestic critics and distracted from the investigation into his campaign, but it has also brought the United States much closer to a dangerous confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia. In the aftermath of the bombing, Russia quickly suspended the “deconfliction” agreement the countries use to prevent collisions in Syrian airspace — an agreement through which the United States notified Russia of the strike in advance — and dispatched a frigate toward U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the bombing also escalated one of Trump’s most troubling conflicts at home — his ongoing conflict with the Constitution. By ordering the strike without seeking authorization from Congress, as the Constitution requires and as Trump himself once demanded of Obama, many legal experts say Trump violated existing law.
In any case, after railing against the foreign policy establishment as a candidate, Trump has now made it plain that his non-interventionist rhetoric, like his supposed economic populism, was a farce. During the campaign, Trump pledged not to get involved in a war in which U.S. interests were not at stake. He expressed sensible skepticism of regime change after the debacles in Iraq and Libya (despite his previous support for both wars). In 2013, he said military escalation in Syria could ultimately lead to “World War III.” Accordingly, it’s no surprise that Trump’s utter betrayal of his campaign promises has left many of his die-hard supporters furious.
One of the few remaining pledges that Trump hasn’t broken, in fact, is the one that hurts Assad’s victims the most. As the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said in a statement, “The best way President Trump could help the people of Syria would be to immediately abandon his inhumane ban on refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries.”
Despite the clamoring of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, the unfortunate reality is that their “playbook” does not contain a path to victory in Syria. Rather than agitating for more U.S. military intervention in a war that cannot be won, we should be calling on our government to lead a diplomatic effort to end the war once and for all. And for those who recognize that Trump cannot bomb his way to peace, it is time to revive and mobilize an antiwar movement to keep the United States from getting entangled in another Middle East war with no clear strategy and no end in sight.
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