Last week, the United States launched an act of war against a sovereign government because failing to do so would have cast doubt on the credibility of the statements that Donald Trump makes while livetweeting Fox & Friends.
That may sound like hyperbolic snark, or the premise of an Andy Borowitz column, but it is a plain description of the rationale behind last Friday’s missile strikes in Syria, according to multiple military and administration officials.
Last Tuesday — amid reports that the U.S. was considering a strike against the Assad regime, in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack against civilians in Douma — Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin warned that “if there is a US missile attack, we … will shoot down U.S. rockets and even the sources that launched the missiles.”
The Fox & Friends morning crew took exception to this bluster, with one host arguing, “What we should be doing is telling the Russians, ‘Every Syrian military base is a target and if you’re there, it is your problem.’”
Minutes later, one of the program’s most dedicated viewers echoed that belligerent note.
The White House had reached no final decision about whether to strike Syria — let alone, whether to target Russian assets within it — when the president tweeted this pledge. Over the ensuing days, Defense Secretary James Mattis implored Trump to hold off on bombing the Assad regime until its responsibility for the Douma attack could be fully verified, and Congress could be given a chance to authorize the act of war.
But the president couldn’t abide a delay. In his view, it was better to bomb Syria without a strategy or legal authorization than to invite doubts about the credibility of the threats he makes on social media. As the New York Times reports:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged President Trump to get congressional approval before the United States launched airstrikes against Syria last week, but was overruled by Mr. Trump, who wanted a rapid and dramatic response, military and administration officials said.
Mr. Trump, the officials said, wanted to be seen as backing up a series of bellicose tweets with action, but was warned that an overly aggressive response risked igniting a wider war with Russia.
… Mr. Trump’s drumbeat of threats last week of a sharp response to the suspected gas attacks all but guaranteed that the United States military would strike Syria, according to two Defense Department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity … Mr. Trump did not necessarily want to hit Syria hard enough to bring Russia into the war, administration officials said. But he did want to appear aggressive in his response.
Just days before the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, Trump had called for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. At that point, Assad was already (allegedly) using chemical weapons on a routine basis. No significant facts on the ground changed between when the president wanted to remove every last American soldier from Syria, and when he wanted to escalate U.S. intervention against Assad. What did change were Fox News’ programming decisions.
Unlike Assad’s typical war crimes, the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma produced dead bodies that weren’t too mutilated to be aired extensively on American cable news channels. Trump reportedly saw those images and felt moved to assert American power. He then, ostensibly, saw a Fox & Friends segment in which Russia was portrayed as challenging his authority to assert that power. He tweeted a rebuke. And thus, America went to war.
Thanks to James Mattis, the bombings proved to be quite limited — mere “show strikes” designed to “send a message” without sparking a wider war. Had Trump picked a slightly less risk-averse hawk as his Defense secretary, however, it’s quite possible that his tweet would have been the trigger for a direct confrontation with Russia and Iran: As the Times reports, “neoconservative members of the Republican foreign policy establishment have started to air concerns that Mr. Mattis is ceding strategic territory to Iran and Russia in Syria.”
As it happened, Trump’s strikes proved sufficiently innocuous for “liberal” foreign policy wonks to feel comfortable endorsing them — even as they acknowledged the campaign’s illegality and strategic incoherence.
And yet, the fact that such Establishment figures blessed Trump’s decision to wage an illegal war in defense of his tweets only makes the development more unnerving.
Trump’s conduct as president is often terrifying for the ways in which it breaks radically with precedent. But a nearly-as-unsettling aspect of his presidency is the way it rubs one’s face in the insanity of American “politics-as-usual.” Which is to say: Like a caricature, Trump makes the more unsightly features of the American presidency more visible, by blowing them up to garish extremes.
It was, of course, absurd for the man who had campaigned in support of torture, banning Syrian refugees — and deliberately targeting the families of enemy combatants for execution — to justify air strikes in Syria on humanitarian grounds. But it was also (less gratuitously) absurd for Barack Obama to issue similarly moralistic condemnations of chemical warfare as such, while his administration allowed U.S. troops to deploy white phosphorus in Afghanistan — and helped its Saudi allies to commit war crimes in Yemen. It is insane that Trump launched a strategically incoherent military intervention for the sole purpose of projecting an image of strength to a domestic audience — but it was also insane for Lyndon Johnson to escalate American involvement in Vietnam for much the same reason.
None of this is to deny that our current president is more comprehensively detached from reality than his predecessors were. When other presidents made plainly hypocritical foreign policy statements — or took strategically dubious foreign policy actions — they generally did so in service of some sincere policy goal. By most accounts, George W. Bush genuinely believed in the power of the United States to spread democracy through mass murder. Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy was conceived, at least in part, as a means of preserving political capital for advancing liberal domestic goals.
By contrast, projecting a desirable image is Trump’s highest ambition. He does not use propaganda as means for advancing his preferred policies; he uses policy as a tool for advancing his preferred propaganda. The mogul did not run for president because he had deeply held convictions about how he wanted to change the world, but because he had a deeply felt desire to change how the world saw him. This is why he prefers to get his information about foreign affairs from a morning talk show, instead of from the most powerful intelligence apparatus ever assembled by humankind: Trump cares more about how geopolitical realities look to Fox News viewers, than about what those realities actually are.
From this perspective, the president’s missile strikes in Syria were strategically sound. If the goal was not to enforce the laws of war, but merely to replace one set of cable news images (the bodies of poisoned children in Syria, talking heads debating whether the president would follow through on his tweets) with another more triumphant one (the president sternly asserting America’s moral responsibilities, missiles streaking across a night sky), then it isn’t hard to see why Trump declared “Mission Accomplished.”
But it is difficult to understand how so many members of our nation’s foreign policy Establishment could see this solipsistic performance as a justifiable exercise of American power. And that difficulty leaves one to wonder whether the distinction between waging a war because Fox & Friends told you to and doing so because prestigious Beltway think tanks did is as significant as we might hope.