Early in his presidency, over the course of a dinner, Donald Trump decided to send U.S. Navy SEALs to a suspected terrorist compound in Yemen. The ensuing raid claimed the life of an American solider named Ryan Owens, along with those of 30 civilians — among them, an 8-year-old American citizen. The SEALs who survived brought no major terrorists or significant intelligence back with them.
When word of the fiasco hit the papers, the commander-in-chief refused to accept responsibility. It was the generals who “lost Ryan,” Trump explained to Fox News. Meanwhile his administration argued that anyone who questioned the success of the raid disparaged Owens’s great sacrifice — a claim that did not sit well with the SEAL’s bereaved father.
The bad headlines persisted. Some in Trump’s own party took the administration to task for stigmatizing criticism of the raid’s failure. And, for a moment, it looked like all those innocents might not have died entirely in vain: Perhaps their terrible loss would teach the new president to consider proposals for military action with a bit more rigor and skepticism. Trump does not like to lose, after all.
Then, the president repurposed his deadly blunder into a piece of uplifting political theater. At his first address to Congress, Trump looked out to where Owens’s weeping widow stood, and assured her that her husband’s mission had been a great success — and that “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.”
And the crowd went wild.
Days earlier, the demagogue had derided the Fourth Estate as the “enemy of the American people.” But now that Trump had used a grief-stricken widow as a shield against criticism of his foreign-policy mistakes, the punditocracy was ready to accept the president as their own.
“That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period,” progressive commentator and activist Van Jones effused on CNN. “For people who have been hoping that he would become unifying, hoping that he might find some way to become presidential, they should be happy with that moment … he did something tonight that you cannot take away from him. He became president of the United States.”
Jones was not alone in his elation.
The following day, Alex Pareene spelled out the alarming implications of the press’s weakness for war-themed melodrama.
You think Donald Trump noticed how the first thing he did that actually got the TV guys to like him was kill a troop?Here are some things Donald Trump is famous for:
1) Noticing which things he does that elicit positive attention and then doing those things over and over and over again.
2) Craving the validation of the press, generally the sort of press a 70-year-old upper class New Yorker pays attention to, especially cable news.
If one dead American service member won him this much praise, just imagine how much they’ll respect him when he kills a couple hundred—or a couple thousand!
In this instance, the media’s enthusiasm was easier to understand. The notion that the United States has an obligation to police the boundaries of legitimate mass murder is one shared by many elites on both sides of the aisle. It is an idea rooted in both an intuitive moral principle — with great power comes great responsibility — and in the prouder chapters of our national history.
Obama’s approach to the Syrian civil war did not honor it. For years before Thursday night, a broad coalition (within the think-tank world, anyway) of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists had been aching for the United States to answer Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against humanity in the language of force. For two days before Trump pulled the trigger, heartrending images of dead Syrian children — apparently slain by chemicals that Assad’s government had assured the world it no longer had — made the ache more acute.
Donald Trump has done very few things that elites in both parties approve of. The mainstream media does not want to be the opposition party. But the president’s relentless affronts to norms of liberal democracy and common decency have provided the media few opportunities to rise from its adversarial crouch. So, to reaffirm their status as neutral umpires, the press has to accentuate the positive whenever plausible. A military action with bipartisan support clears that bar.
And Trump’s action offered plenty of other plausible, positive angles. To this point in his political career, the president had signaled an unnerving contempt for the very concept of human rights. Throughout his campaign, Trump praised murderous dictators, torture, the idea of shooting Muslims with bullets dripped in pig blood, and even the deliberate slaughter of civilians as a means of deterrence.
Given that context, the president’s full-throated denunciation of Assad’s “barbaric attack” on his nation’s “beautiful babies” — and his decision to name-check international laws that barred such barbarism — may reasonably provide some modicum of comfort.
What’s more, the attack also served to rebut the notion that Trump’s foreign policy would give undue deference to Moscow’s desires — another source of bipartisan anxiety.
Finally, early reports suggested that the strike was executed with some degree of caution and competence. It does not appear, as of this writing, that the White House imagines the attack as the beginning of a campaign to topple Assad. Which is to say: The administration does not appear to have reversed its entire strategy on the conflict on a whim.
All of this makes the media’s adulation understandable; none of it makes that adulation defensible.
There are at least four reasons why it is profoundly irresponsible to commend last night’s events without equivocation:
(1) While eyewitness accounts strongly suggest that the Assad government was behind Tuesday’s attacks, Trump’s retaliation came before any thorough investigation confirmed that evidence. The speed of Trump’s reaction betrays a lack of caution that should be unnerving even to those who support confrontation with Assad.
(2) The strike reportedly killed 16 people, including four children. In the opinion of the White House’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster the strike did not eliminate Assad’s ability to deploy chemical weapons, but merely degraded it. What’s more, there are already signs that the attack might enrage Assad more than it deters him.
If our concern is minimizing the deaths of Syria’s beautiful babies, it is by no means certain that last night’s action will not, ultimately, prove counterproductive.
(3) Congress never gave Donald Trump the authority to commit an act of war against the Syrian government, and to claim otherwise is to give the executive unilateral authority to kill people anywhere in the world, in the name of our republic. It is astounding that more people aren’t perturbed by that prospect, given that:
(4) We know that our president is an ill-informed, obscenely incurious conspiracy theorist who routinely retreats into self-delusion when reality frustrates his ambitions. He is a demagogue who has attacked the judiciary as a threat to national security, and repeatedly insinuated that in times of war constitutional laws become mere suggestions. These sentences may sound polemical, but they aren’t. They merely describe a basic fact that much of the media is eager to forget: Donald Trump’s presidency is an ongoing national crisis.
Not only did many media commentators neglect these concerns — some actually recast them as causes for celebration.
Among the latter was CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:
I think Donald Trump became the president of the United States [last night]. I think this was actually a big moment. Candidate Trump said he would never get involved in the Syrian civil war. He told president Obama you can’t do this without the authorization of Congress. He seemed unconcerned with global norms. President Trump recognized that the president of the United States does have to act to enforce international laws; does have to have this broader moral and political purpose. President Trump realized, as every president has for many decades now, that presidents always believe they have inherent legal authority as commander-in-chief that they don’t need to go to a pesky Congress every time they want military force.
Here Zakaria casts a willingness to ignore the Constitution as a precondition for earning the title of American president.
Just as remarkably, Zakaria suggests that Trump’s action was motivated by his recognition of America’s unique responsibility to uphold international law and act as moral exemplar on the world stage.
The evidence for this claim consists of a few words the president recently spoke in front of a camera. The evidence against it consists of Trump’s repeated attempts to enact a discriminatory ban on refugees and asylum-seekers that contravenes international law; the administration’s enthusiastic support for Saudi Arabia’s famine-inducing war crimes in Yemen; his ongoing efforts to defund and disempower the United Nations itself; his vociferous opposition to the U.N.’s rebuking Israel over its illegal settlements; and virtually everything he has ever said on the subject of international law.
The New York Times’ Mark Landler also opted to baselessly impute a flattering motivation for Trump’s action:
Mr. Trump’s advisers framed his decision in the dry language of international norms and strategic deterrence. In truth, it was an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his — and that turning away, to him, was not an option.
Landler concedes that “it is not easy to square Mr. Trump’s empathy for the victims of a single chemical weapons attack with his refusal to take in thousands of Syrian refugees from years of strife that have turned that country into a charnel house” — and notes that, “relaxing that policy did not come up in the president’s deliberations over striking Syria, his advisers said.”
But these stark facts do not prevent Landler from asserting:
What is clear, however, is that Mr. Trump reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria. And that reaction propelled him into a sequence of actions that will change the course of his presidency.
Landler’s sole evidence for this conclusion are the president’s own words, which is to say the words of one of America’s most infamously dishonest men.
It is stunning that Landler, Zakaria, and so many others do not entertain the possibility that Trump’s decision wasn’t motivated by an epiphany about the virtues of international law — or the value of every Syrian child’s life — but by a far more banal and cynical recognition: that giving lip service to the former, while feeding cable networks some “beautiful” war footage, would earn him their accolades.