This administration is starting to make me want to burn my political science degree; what is the point if you can’t even predict what the hell the White House is going to do? Well…more on that later…believe it or not the White House is actually acting rationally…
But for now lets cover the basics. Assad, wanting to strengthen his grip over a shattered country after years of bloody civil war, pulled out chemical weapons. Casualties were modest in comparison to the atrocities his armed forces committed with conventional munitions, but taboos are taboos. Trump denounced Assad and followed up with a surprise attack on a Syrian air base Thursday night. Needless to say Assad and Russia are NOT happy. Russia has apparently pulled a lot of its muscle out of Syria (sure?) but they still maintain a presence and they are coming hot off of a campaign that saved the Assad regime. Trump threatens now to undo what Russia has worked hard to create.
The first question on everyone’s minds: will we fight we Russia? Probably not, although this could definitely turn into a Cold War style proxy war. Russia wouldn’t risk going toe-to-toe with the United States anywhere, even Syria. The Kremlin is making the usual rounds, claiming that the “[U.S. is violating the holy virtue of state sovereignty by aggressively targeting Syria].” We might expect the Kremlin’s propaganda output, and Putin’s popularity, to gain support. On the ground Russia is likely to continue arming Syria with defensive capabilities (ABMs are being moved in) to slow or defy American efforts. Abroad Russia is likely to try and create more hotspots to annoy America and generate issues where they can claim legitimate success. I guess now we’ll see just how well the latest upgrades of Russian armaments stack against NATO’s tried and true war machines. Weapons and conflict are the exports of great powers.
The next question: will the U.S. commit to Syria? This remains to be seen. Personally I would be surprised if Trump committed. He was largely isolationist during his campaign, but of course I suppose if that was a true policy stance he would never have had missiles launched anyways. The danger now is whether or not everyone else will commit. The media seems to be backing Trump in this move. Congress, meanwhile, has formed a typical response; shirking their constitutional obligations to declare war and ignoring a great opportunity to weaken the imperial presidency they are generally falling in line. Marco Rubio was on CNN today framing the action against Syria much as Bush did for Iraq. He claims that Syria has been sheltering terrorists and has WMDs, a dangerous combination. One of these claims is warranted: Syria does apparently have WMDs. But the charge of harbouring terrorists is specious, especially given that Assad was in the final stages of his war against terrorists (and rebels, and everyone else, but still the terrorists were included in that). Hard to believe that about a year ago Marco Rubio was butting heads with Trump and trying to keep his head above water. At least one thing is consistent about Trump: he can run roughshod over less formidable personalities. Another factor that isn’t in Assad’s favor is NATO, which will likely stand by the U.S. The neo-liberal establishment would love another try at regime change.
So why did Trump act? Did he have a change of heart? Did images of children convulsing as they choked on Sarin gas move him? Seems unlikely. Trump isn’t much of a humanitarian; this is the guy who wanted to ban Syrian refugees because they might be terrorists. His real rationale is (surprisingly) selfish.
Trump is, if nothing else, a master of manipulation and deflection. By attacking Syria he just pulled out the oldest card in the Presidency’s deck. I did a statistical analysis of it in undergrad, it’s a concept explained and developed by one of my personal political science role models, John Mueller of OSU: the rally ’round the flag effect. The phenomenon is rather simple. Crisis happens->political support for the president soars! History has plenty of examples ranging from Pearl Harbour to the Caribbean Crisis to 9/11. Usually the crises are exogenous (Pearl Harbour and 9/11) in that they are perpetrated by foreign actors. Obviously these exogenous events pose an existential threat and quickly galvanize the public. Can a president manufacture a crisis of their own? I would argue yes. Kennedy chose to turn the Cuban Missiles into a crisis. I would argue that a president’s ability to manipulate and emphasize danger is a key component of phenomenon; framing and forming a decision and then selling it to the public is paramount. In this case Trump took a foreign, not a domestic crisis (Assad gassing people) and took action. Or perhaps the action he took to bomb Syria is itself the crisis. I suppose its stupid to view the two acts as unrelated. Assad created a crisis by gassing people, Trump had to decide whether or not to escalate.
Trump escalated, and it made good political sense for him to do so (for now). The public and media, not to mention other branches of government, tend to oblige the president and rally at first. Amidst bad ratings, allegations of Russian collusion, and a host of other scandals, Trump had an easy decision. Launching tomahawk missiles distracts the public from the other issues, boosts public support (we love our military) and wipes away the shadow of Russian interference. Trump just openly defied Putin’s interests-the public will no longer pay much mind to stories of election interference. This move also makes Trump seem tough. Critics of Obama are bound to see Trump as much more tactically sound, for the time being.
In my last post I talked about Putin’s “silver bullet.” Interfering in the U.S. elections was a win-win because it would weaken Hillary and enervate U.S. foreign policy. Of course, Putin was too successful. Trump ended up winning and we all thought he was shackled by the Russian electoral taint. Apparently this backfired for the Kremlin though, as Trump had to get out from under this scandal and fast (hence he bombs Syria).
Bombing Syria was, in a way, Trump’s “silver bullet.” Will this solve all of his issues, or will it end up being “too” successful and start creating unintended consequences. I fully expect Trump’s ratings to soar, or at least increase, but for a brief while. The wind, in the form of the media, Congress, and NATO, is at his back. But meanwhile as some American’s may celebrate being tough on Assad and Russia, others may cower at the prospect of conflict with Russia, however unlikely. Here is a man widely feared for his mercurial, unpredictable nature. Everyone said he would pick random fights, now some of their fears may be warranted. Meanwhile he risks isolating his own dedicated coalition even further. He couldn’t replace Obamacare or go after Clinton, now he is launching foreign interventions against the darlings of the alt-Right.
Trump is playing with fire here, and it could go any way depending on how he follows up. Bush was in a very similar situation (faced with the choice of undertaking regime change). Of course, Bush was way more popular. Personally I am hopeful that we will not move into Syria. I remember 9/11. I remember getting out of school early and all the fear and confusion. America was attacked by a mysterious enemy, there was a genuine crisis at hand, and almost everyone rallied behind Bush. I don’t see that here. We weren’t attacked. The only thing people are scared of is Russia and Trump’s temper. Trump is already highly unpopular, and the internet is vocally pointing out his hypocrisy (he lambasted Obama on Twitter for wanting to attack Syria). The main reason why Trump’s attempt to create a “rally ’round the flag” moment is bound to fail may be because of recent memory. Bush used a rally to launch a war that ended up damning his legacy. If Trump uses a more specious rally to try and prop up his already failing popularity he may up being less successful and popular than Bush.
Trump ran on the grounds of curbing this establishment and ending the U.S.A.’s neo-liberal commitments; I guess now we’ll see just how serious he was…Only one thing is clear, that Trump doesn’t really have any clear commitments or plans.
Meanwhile we’ll see how serious the Kremlin is…