Q: Under Trump, U.S. bombings have increased across all Middle Eastern theaters. Why is Syria different from these other escalations?
A: It is true that under Trump, the U.S. military has ramped up its attacks in Yemen and Iraq and Somalia and elsewhere. But this attack is different because all of those other military actions were targeted against actors that the Obama administration had also targeted. The attack on a Syrian government airfield was the first time the United States had targeted Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Q: In previous years, Trump disparaged the idea of taking military action against the Assad regime. Why, on this night, is Trump praising military action?
A: It is true that when President Barack Obama seemed poised to bomb Syria in 2013, Trump did not seem enthusiastic about the idea:
He wasn’t any more enthusiastic about intervening in Syria as a presidential candidate either. So what is different now? Did God soften Trump’s heart?
This is a complicated answer, and one must answer this in different ways depending on who is asking the question. I have heard a tale of four sons who ask different variants of this question. The wise son asks, “What do the testimonials, tick-tocks, and other accounts say about Trump’s actions?” You should explain to him that Josh Dawsey’s account in Politico, and Ashley Parker, David Nakamura and Dan Lamothe’s account in The Washington Post, suggest that Trump was moved by the “CNN effect”; graphic images moved him to take action. You should explain that even though the CNN effect has not found much empirical support to explain past presidents, it explains Trump’s actions bigly. The only difference is that it should be called the “Fox News effect.”
The wicked son asks, “What does this bombing mean to you?” To you and not to him. Because he excludes himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of American community and thinks of himself as somehow above it all. To him you should say, “Trump thought he was doing the right thing to preserve the civilized norm against the use of chemical weapons. For us, and not for you. If you were there in Syria you would not have been redeemed. And don’t tweet this.”
The simple son asks, “What’s this?” To him you should say, “With a low popularity rating, the president saw some visceral images and decided to act, thereby helping to enforce a norm that is worth preserving. We’ll see if it works.”
Finally, there is the one who does not know how to ask a question at all. To him, you should say plainly, “The important thing is that Sebastian Gorka’s logic makes no sense.”
Q: When previous administrations bombed other countries, they were usually able to articulate a coherent rationale for their actions. Why, after this bombing, are officials of the Trump administration sending mixed signals?
A: To be fair to the Trump administration, Syria is a fantastically complex problem. There’s ISIS, there’s an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, there’s a strong Russian presence, and there’s the Assad regime. It’s not that surprising that, less than a week ago, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Assad’s removal was no longer a priority.
On Sunday, however, Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to give contradictory statements about Assad’s future in Syria. So what gives?
What gives is that even before the missile strikes, Trump officials had acknowledged to staff that the administration had no coherent foreign policy doctrine. Trump’s actions last week just scramble an already scrambled picture further. The president contradicted his rhetoric on Syria for the past few years, and that makes his actions difficult to reconcile with his words.
One of the many downsides of Trump’s improvisational foreign policymaking is that the lack of consistency makes it difficult for subordinates to know what will happen next. That, plus Trump’s tendency to let conflict thrive within his organizations, means that different foreign policy subordinates have an incentive to lobby for their position on television. It’s the one way they’ll know that Trump is listening to him. Or, as I put it Sunday:
Q: For the entirety of Trump’s term, media coverage of his foreign policy actions have been scathing. Why, after this bombing, have mainstream media accounts been so glowing of Trump’s actions?
A: As both BuzzFeed and the Intercept both observed, the initial wave of news coverage of Trump’s Syria attack was nothing short of fawning. Given the previous criticism of his foreign policy, what explains this newfound approval?
There’s a good and a bad answer to this. The good answer is that Trump’s actions reinforced a norm against the use of chemical weapons that actually has some value. That Trump did it, given his campaign rhetoric and America First slogan, is genuinely surprising and counterintuitive. As David Frum noted, the media really likes these kinds of narratives.
There is a seamier side to this answer, however, which is that the media loves, loves, loves to cover military action. For the cable news networks in particular, there’s nothing like a president’s first bombing. It is an opportunity for commentators to take the word “doctrine” out of the bureau and give it a spin, just to drive international relations scholars a bit mad.
My Post colleague Margaret Sullivan answers this question better than I could, and I’ll close by quoting her conclusion:
Missile strikes may seem thrilling, and retaliation righteous.But journalists and commentators ought to remember the duller virtues, too, like skepticism, depth and context.And keep their eyes fixed firmly there, not on the spectacular images in the sky.