{{show_title_date || "Absent policy, Trump follows other motivations to military force, 4/7/17, 9:00 PM ET"}}

Trump’s Syria attack brings uncomfortable truths into focus

Updated
It’s been about four days since Donald Trump launched a military offensive against Syria’s Assad regime. What have we learned about the administration and the broader political/policy dynamic? Several uncomfortable truths.

1. There’s no reason to believe the attack was effective. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained yesterday that the purpose of Thursday night’s attack “was to target the air base from which these chemical attacks were launched and to render that air base, certainly its infrastructure, no longer usable.” If that the goal of the operation, there’s very little that suggests it was a success – since the Assad government was using that same air base soon after.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an enthusiastic proponent of a vastly increased U.S. presence in Syria, said on “Face the Nation” yesterday that the fact that Syrian jets were taking off from the same base less than 36 hours later “is not a good signal.” McCain added that U.S. forces could have “cratered the runways,” but Trump has already publicly declared that he chose not to.

2. The Trump administration hasn’t yet settled on its own talking points. The top two voices on foreign policy in the Trump administration, aside from the president and members of his family, are Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. On the Sunday shows yesterday, Haley said the administration will work towards toppling Assad in Syria, while Tillerson argued it’d be up to Syrians to oust their own dictator. This seems like the sort of thing the administration probably should’ve worked out ahead of time.

Complicating matters, Haley’s and Tillerson’s rhetoric last week contradicted the rhetoric they used the week before.

3. No one has any idea what, if anything, will follow Thursday night’s attack. A senior administration official told the Washington Post, “We don’t yet know if this is a one-time effort or not. We can’t predict what may or may not happen.”

The near future, in other words, is almost impossible to predict, since no one seems to have any idea what Trump wants or expects.

4. Trump has no real policy or strategy worked out. The same Post article noted, “Foreign-policy analysts cautioned that ordering a military strike before developing a strategic policy carried significant risks for the White House.” You don’t say. Tillerson added yesterday that there’s been “no change” to the U.S. policy towards Syria, which is an odd thing to say after the U.S. started attacking both sides in Syria’s civil war.

5. There’s a seemingly endless supply of unfortunate Trump tweets on this subject. Here’s a good one from September 2013, in which he complained that President Obama was golfing instead of talking to Congress about Syria. (Trump went golfing again twice over the weekend. He’s received no congressional authorization for military strikes in Syria.) Here’s another. And another.

6. The White House’s defense of Trump’s contradictions needs work. Sebastian Gorka, a top White House adviser on foreign policy, conceded the other day that Trump’s current posture is the opposite of everything he ever said on the subject, but added, “I think you’d admit that the things you say when you’re in a certain situation without the requisite experience that may come later shouldn’t be held against you,”

The beauty of this argument is its blank-check quality: by this reasoning, literally everything Trump said before Jan. 20, 2017, doesn’t really count because he wasn’t yet president, and didn’t actually know what he was talking about.

7.  An unsettling set of incentives has taken shape. Trump likes it when people say nice things about him. After he launched a missile strike on Thursday night, a variety of pundits gushed over how “presidential” it was for Trump to further intervene in Syria’s civil war. For the president, the calculus is unsettling: he can see praise of himself on television if he orders more military attacks.

8. Some of the partisan hypocrisy is breathtaking. In 2013, dozens of congressional Republicans insisted President Obama could not lawfully launch an attack against Syria’s Assad government without congressional approval. Four years later, many of these same GOP lawmakers, most notably Sen. Cory Garnder (R-Colo.), have no comparable concerns.

They can’t even make the policy-oriented argument about changes in security conditions, because their case wasn’t related to the substantive details. It was entirely about constitutional principles, which aren’t supposed to change based on whether a president has a “D” or an “R” after his or her name. (Rank-and-file GOP members may be taking their cues from party leaders, whose inconsistencies on this are indefensibly brazen.)

9. The White House is sticking with the “emotional” explanation. Why, exactly, did Trump order this strike? The Washington Post highlighted the impact of the imagery.
When President Trump began receiving his intelligence briefings in January, his team made a request: The president, they said, was a visual and auditory learner. Would the briefers please cut down on the number of words in the daily briefing book and instead use more graphics and pictures?

Similarly, after Trump entered office, his staff took President Barack Obama’s Syria contingency plans and broke the intelligence down into more-digestible bites, complete with photos, according to current and former U.S. officials with knowledge of the request.

This week, it was the images – gruesome photos of a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians – that moved Trump…. Senior administration officials and members of Congress who spoke with Trump said the president was especially struck by two images: young, listless children being splashed with water in a frantic attempt to cleanse them of the nerve agent; and an anguished father holding his twin babies, swathed in soft white fabric, poisoned to death.

As the carnage unfolded on cable news, which the president watches throughout the day and deep into the night, Trump turned to his senior staff, talking about how “horrible” and “awful” the footage out of Syria was, said one top adviser.
This, in turn, creates its own set of incentives: everyone around the world has now been told that to get the president of the United States’ attention, and increase the likelihood of U.S. intervention abroad, distribute gruesome images on television.

10. Uncertainty reigns. The Atlantic’s David Frum noted, “Trump’s strike was symbolic and demonstrative, not decisive. It signaled, but did not compel. It leaves the Syrian and Russian leadership an array of options about how to respond – and it may well have committed the United States to potential next steps that the president did not imagine and does not intend.”

Donald Trump, Foreign Policy and Syria

Trump's Syria attack brings uncomfortable truths into focus

Updated