Last Thursday, Donald Trump initiated a terrifying week of military action, signaling his determination to leave his mark in the sordid history of U.S. militarism. The sudden strikes on Syria’s Shayrat air base represented the kind of about-face we should by now be getting used to from Trump, but that didn’t make them any less unsettling coming from the man who controls the most formidable military in the world. The strikes were dizzyingly effective—not so much in pacifying Bashar al Assad’s campaign of slaughter as in winning Trump the domestic adulation he so desperately craves. The president’s erstwhile skeptics were so taken with the volley of missiles that they devolved into near-Trumpian rapture. “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean,” MSNBC’s Brian Williams rhapsodized, quoting Leonard Cohen for good measure. “They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight over this airfield.” Almost as beautiful, perhaps, as the cake Trump was sharing with China’s Xi Jinping as the missiles were being launched.
Liberal pundits were by no means alone in praising Trump’s “decisive” action: many Syrian commentators, too, voiced their support for the strike. Ibrahim Al-Assil, a cofounder of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement and fellow at the Middle East Institute, told CBS News he approved of Trump’s “red line.” A Syrian refugee in London confronted a Stop the War protest against the airstrikes to ask why they weren’t protesting Assad instead, but was reportedly drowned out. Syrian-American poet and academic Mohja Kahf posted on Facebook:
If you are outraged by the U.S. strike on butcher bashar’ airbase, know that Syrian activists, and I mean even advocates of nonviolence, do NOT share your outrage. . . . If you are mobilized to action when butcher bashar’s military forces are struck but not when those forces strike Syrian civilians with conventional weapons or chemical, know that you are out of touch with Syrians.
There is no doubt that the butchery that Assad has been carrying out unchecked for now six years, including the chemical attacks on Ghouta in 2013 and most recently on Khan Sheikhoun, demands a concerted international response. But if last week’s strikes were meant to cripple Assad’s capacity to carry out another chemical attack or protect civilians in any kind of lasting way, as many of the same Syrian critics were quick to note, they failed miserably. To give Trump any credit for bombing on humanitarian grounds—even as he indiscriminately refers to Syrian refugees as “terrorists” and denies them asylum in the United States—is to set a dangerous precedent of its own.
The Trump administration, not surprisingly, has seized on the excitement around last week’s airstrikes not to pursue a meaningful de-escalation of the war in Syria but to further ramp up its aggressive military campaigns in one country after another. In addition to the airstrikes that accidentally killed eighteen of our own Kurdish allies in northern Syria, there is the “armada” he sent toward North Korea (even as Pyongyang threatened another nuclear test) and, of course, the 21,000-pound “MOAB” dropped Thursday on ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan. The brute-force appeal of unloading the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal on Khorasan jihadists may have fulfilled Trump’s campaign promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, but only the most delusional of presidents and generals could imagine that it will bring the United States any closer to ending its longest-ever war, or Afghanistan any closer to peace.
What binds all of these actions together? Above all, a desire to project unrelenting military might and bravado—to act fast and think later. Trump’s schoolyard obsession with projecting toughness through “big, beautiful” bombs would be laughable were so many lives not at stake. It’s a Cold-War-level game of brinksmanship being played by a man with the judiciousness of a toddler—a Dr. Strangelove presidency come true.
Trump’s escalating military actions over the course of the past week have made the liberal glee over last Thursday’s strikes all the more unnerving. “Having spent the campaign season darkly warning that the volatile Trump should not get his hands on the nuclear codes,” as Nikil Saval writes, “Democrats folded at the first moment that his military ambitions could be debated.” And not just folded: gushed. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, leading the Democratic resistance in the House and Senate, both applauded the strikes (though Pelosi has also demanded congressional approval for further military action in Syria). Of forty-seven major newspapers that ran editorials on the strikes, only one was opposed. That the whim of an attention-addicted president, paired with the counsel of generals led by “Mad Dog” Mattis, could earn such instant praise from across the political spectrum only confirms the surefire formula of bombing for ratings.
I fear that even the most trigger-happy of pundits may soon come to regret legitimizing, and encouraging, Trump’s adventurism. As Deadspin’s Alex Pareene warned back in March, “Now that Trump has learned that there is a direct relationship between a president’s body count and how ‘presidential’ the mainstream political press considers him to be, the whole world is fucked.”
Where does this all leave Syria? Surely no closer to peace. The best hope for a long-term solution remains a brokered truce between the Assad regime, opposition forces, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, and the Gulf states. The odds of such a strategy succeeding are admittedly slim. But so are the odds of achieving a lasting peace in Syria through any other means. Last week’s strikes made such an outcome less, not more, likely.
Colin Kinniburgh is a senior editor at Dissent.