Thursday night, when America attacked Syria’s Shayrat airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, MSNBC’s Brian Williams waxed lyrically and tweeted “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Williams followed up with a line from Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” adding, “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.”
The strikes were an American response to an incident on Tuesday when, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Syrian air strike on Khan Sheikhoun, Syria killed at least 86 people, including 27 children.
Syria’s weapon of choice was sarin gas, and it didn’t take long for the world – witnessing the evidence through graphic photos – to be revulsed by the horror of the terror that Bashar al-Assad’s government had visited upon its citizens.
The images of dead children moved President Donald J. Trump: “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies! — little babies,” Trump said, “that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
That’s what it took – a picture?
Where was Donald Trump when Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach?
Where was Trump when the US military bombed a civilian target in Mosul killing over 200 Iraqis?
Where’s Trump’s empathy for civilian victim’s of bombings in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq?
Where has he ever expressed any empathy for children burned and killed by other than al-Assad’s terror?
There’s no doubt that the attacks of April 4, 2017 required a response. Al-Assad’s gassing of Khan Sheikhoun was the deadliest chemical weapons attack in Syria since he used nerve gas on Damascus suburbs in August 2013, killing nearly 1,500 people.
President Barack Obama was in office then and, in response to the gassing of the Damascus suburbs, he asked Congress to approve a strike against Syria.
Only 29 Senators supported Obama – who only three months previous had ordered the action that killed Osama Bin Laden.
To their credit both New Hampshire Senators – Ayotte and Shaheen – supported voting for congressional approval for action against Syria.
Congress, though, continuing its then nearly 5-year-old, craven, self-serving, anti-anything-Obama-asks-for, demurred.
Donald Trump tweeted on 29 Aug 2013, “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.”
Followed by: “If Obama attacks Syria and innocent civilians are hurt and killed, he and the U.S. will look very bad!”
Followed by: “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day!”
Obama, reluctant to use military power without Congressional support, chose instead to work with Russia. Through the United Nations and the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons 1,300 tons of chemical weapons — sarin, mustard gas, and all precursors — were removed from Syria.
And, sadly, what’s clear, from the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, is that they either missed something in 2013 or that al-Assad reconstituted his ability to make sarin.
This week’s horrific sarin attack forced the Trump Administration’s hand and forced a policy change from “leave al-Assad” alone to, I believe, a necessary and proportional airstrike on a Syrian base and, I fear, an outstanding possibility of some future unspecified unilateral, unproductive, and dangerous intervention.
On Wednesday, the day after the Khan Sheikhoun attacks, Trump specifically criticized Obama’s handling of the 2013 episode. “When [Obama] didn’t cross that line after making the threat,” he said, “I think that set us back a long ways, not only in Syria, but in many other parts of the world, because it was a blank threat.”
On Wednesday, the day after the Khan Sheikhoun attacks, Trump conveniently ignored that he’d forcibly argued against Obama attacking Syria.
On Wednesday, the day after the Khan attacks, Trump specifically ignored the fact that Ambassador Nikki Haley had recently said “Our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out,” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had recently said that Al-Assad’s future was up to the “Syrian people.”
On Thursday after the Khan Sheikhoun attacks Trump attacked Syria.
While the strike was timely, necessary and proportional – and seemingly flawlessly executed – I’m fearful of what lies ahead.
Trump’s not someone that’s ever displayed any compulsion to embrace just, moral or democratic ideals. He views himself as an intimidator and has no history of being either proportional or measured in his responses. He’s displayed a willingness to embrace dictators and tyrants, approves of torture and he won’t even rule out the use of nuclear weapons in conflict.
And he’s ignorant of the dynamics of the Middle East.
In going forward Trump must recognize that Syria’s not his only antagonist in this theatre. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, for example, have many ways to retaliate against regional American interests.
And if al-Assad is toppled – probably leading to a massive slaughter of Syria’s Alawite communities – the most likely result could be an empowerment of al Qaeda and ISIS–type jihadists seizing Syrian cities and towns, further destabilizing the region.
And more Syrian refugees to whom we would deny safe harbor.
Friday morning, as I wrote this new reflection, I turned on MSNBC to watch Morning Joe parse the events of the night before.
To my dismay, but not to my surprise, I watched panel after panel of non-colored, non-Syrian, non-Arab, non-Muslim people reflect upon Trump’s actions. Led by Iraq War cheerleaders like Bob Woodward and Tom Friedman, Joe’s guests, politicians and pundits alike, opined on how “A new sheriff” was in town. And they speculated, as Orientalists are wont to do, on how they knew, because of tweets they’d received, how certain Sunni oligarchs really felt about Trump’s action.
How they felt about the “beauty of our weapons.”
Trump’s willingness to strike Syria doesn’t mean he’s either being presidential or that he’s embraced any comprehensive and discernible foreign policy. It suggests to me that he did the right thing for one of two dangerous reasons; either to deflect attention away from the weaknesses he’s displayed as Commander-in-Chief at home or because it was an immediate and visceral Chauncey Gardiner-like reaction to images he saw on television.
Sad, very sad. And dangerous, very very dangerous.
This week, as Jews approach Passover, as Christians celebrate Palm Sunday and Jesus’s triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, remember that the huddled masses of Khan Sheikhoun – those who can no longer breathe free in Syria – are still not welcome to breathe free in Donald Trump’s America.
In the meantime, if you yearn for President Trump’s attention, get your picture on TV.