Is Donald Trump a student of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand? Some of Trump’s recent actions suggest that he is, at least intuitively. I am thinking in particular of Talleyrand’s observation that “non-intervention is a metaphysical idea, indistinguishable in practice from intervention.” The question is not whether a state like America is part of the process. It is, by definition. The question is how effective a role it will play.
Thursday night, Donald Trump demonstrated his grasp of that truth.
In August 2012, Barack Obama had some stern words for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” Obama said, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
A year later, Assad launched a gas attack against parts of a suburb of Damascus. It killed some 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children. As Politico reported, “Horrific video footage showing people with twisted bodies sprawled on hospital floors, some twitching and foaming at the mouth after being exposed to sarin gas” went viral on the internet.
The “red line” had certainly been crossed. Outrage. Consternation. Calls for action.
Obama did . . . nothing.
Except that they left some of the toxic stuff behind.
Earlier last week, Assad’s forces conducted another sarin gas attack against rebel forces in Syria. This left some 70 people dead, “including children, . . . some writhing, choking, gasping or foaming at the mouth.”
Sixty-three hours later, around the time that Donald Trump was having dinner with President Xi Jinping of China at Mar-a-Lago, two US destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean fired fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat air base, from where the deadly gas attack originated. The carefully targeted attack destroyed aircraft, air defense control systems, fuel and ammunition storage facilities, and workshops. Barracks and facilities suspected of housing more chemical weapons were deliberately spared.
Naturally, the chattering class erupted like a flock of grackles.
Much of the bird song was familiar. Holding down the paranoid conspiracy corner, MSNBC Lawrence O’Donnell wondered whether Vladimir Putin had masterminded the chemical attack so that Trump could “look good by striking Syria.” Am I alone in thinking that the strange sound you hear above O’Donnell’s insane chirping is the theme from the Twilight Zone? (Confession: I do not watch MSNBC and have only recently become aware of O’Donnell’s existence. He clearly needs help.)
There were all the usual questions that arise when the US President unexpectedly uses military force. Chief among those questions: Was Trump’s authorized to order the strike without first obtaining the approval of Congress? Ted Cruz summed up the answer: Yes. In our system, the power to declare war is vested in Congress. But it is the Commander in Chief’s prerogative to take action to defend the country and to respond to exigent circumstances that threaten national security. The deployment and use of weapons of mass destructive constitutes such a threat. Ergo, etc.
There was a good dealing of novel chirping, too. My unofficial poll suggests that Trump’s action against Syria met with wide approval among the American people. It even earned plaudits from many anti-Trump Republicans, especially in the neo-conservative fraternity. Ralph Peters, for example, formerly a foaming critic of Trump, sang his praises. “The United States is back. There are, indeed, red lines. And the enemies of humanity cross those lines at their peril.”
There was a lot more where that came from.
I hesitate to intrude upon the novel warm glow of good feeling from that corridor of previously implacable disgruntlement. Nevertheless, that particular chirping chorus is bound to be disappointed. Trump’s attack on Syria was not the answer to that fabled call for the 1980s to send back its foreign policy. It was a carefully calculated response—to an atrocity, first of all, but also to a number of surrounding contingencies, some of which I’ll come to in a moment.
If the neo-conservative jubilation ought to be tempered, so should the alarm that coruscated through some precincts of the Trump faithful. Donald Trump campaigned on an America First platform that made avoiding foreign entanglements its centerpiece. Indeed he did. But as Chris Buskirk has noted on this site (and as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has corroborated), the strike against Syria did not in any way gainsay that ambition. There are no signs that the nation-building moral imperialism of the Bush era is making a comeback.
What is making a comeback, however, is the peace-through-strength realism that Trump repeatedly championed during his candidacy and first weeks of his presidency. And this brings me to those surrounding contingencies I mentioned.
As many observers have noted, the attack on Shayrat air base was directed not only at Bashar al-Assad. We can say with high confidence that it was intended to garner the attention of several other people. President Xi Jinping, for example. There he was, the guest of President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, tucking into the Dover sole and New York strip steak. By the time he got to the chocolate cake, the attack was over. As the dinner broke up, Trump took President Xi aside and quickly informed him about the strike. Response? Our talks were productive and cordial.
Then there is Vladimir Putin. The Trump-colluded-with-the-Russians-to-win-the-election meme was never anything but preposterous. I think Democratic lawmakers have always known that, even if it has escaped the ken of hysterical fantasists like Lawrence O’Donnell. They persisted, I conjecture, because they thought it a useful distraction. The Susan Rice implosion pretty much put paid to that, I’d wager, and the strike against Syria rendered it utterly surreal. The result? Bluster from Russia followed by . . . crickets. “Russia Warns of Serious Consequences from U.S. Strike in Syria,” screamed a Reuters headline. You betcha. But Rex Tillerson is still scheduled to go to Moscow next week. Good timing. For one very serious consequence is that Russia now knows that this President of the United States is not planning to “lead from behind” as did his predecessor. Look for a marked adjustment in their posture.
Then there is the wide, wide world beyond Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. That clickety-clack-clack-clack sound you hear are the beads of the great foreign policy abacus recalculating its estimation of Donald Trump. He is not one of them, not part of the international administrative nomenklatura. But he is the most powerful man in the world and he means business. Who knew?
An interesting question is whether the bulbous Kim Jong-un has absorbed the memo. Since Kim inhabits a paranoid empyrean almost as surreal as the one occupied by Lawrence O’Donnell, it is hard to say with certainty. I hope so. The Carl Vinson Strike Group is steaming toward the Korean peninsula as I write and will be able to repeat the message in capital letters if necessary. Perhaps, if all goes well, President Xi will take a moment to whisper it in Kim’s ear as well.
Gregory of Tours began his History of the Franks (circa 590) with the unexceptionable observation that “A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some of them bad.” Donald Trump’s strike against Syria reminds us that no matter what happens the grackles of the press will fill the air with apodictic static. Take a look at the press reaction to the Syrian strike. In how many stories does the word “must” appear? “Now Donald Trump must . . .” Fill in the blank of that deontic imperative: He must consult Congress, reassure our allies/his base/Rosie O’Donnell, etc.
Substantively, most of that noise is barely distinguishable from static. But at the risk of adding to that chorus let me say what I think the Syria strike shows.
First, it shows that Donald Trump understands that a powerful state does not have the luxury of disengagement. His policy is America First: quite right. But in order to put America First, one must recognize that America inhabits a rivalrous and often hostile world of competing interests. America First does not mean America Alone.
Second, the attack on Syria takes its place beside a host of other initiatives, large and small, that Trump and his team have undertaken in the less than three months they have been in office. The Keystone pipeline. The enforcement of the country’s immigration laws. The Executive Order reorganizing, and trimming, the Executive Branch. The attack on the regulatory overreach that has stifled business and hampered freedom. The proposed budget, which zeroes out such dinosaurs as the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. The shake up of the Department of Education with Betsy DeVos—and look for lots more there soon. The advent of a United States Ambassador with backbone as our representative to the UN. The confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. And on and on. The media keeps telling us how chaotic and disorganized the Trump administration is. Don’t look now, but the most impressive Cabinet in decades has been acting with astonishing speed to keep the promises Trump made on the campaign trail.
Above all, the strike against Syria shows that Donald Trump—pace the insane maundering of unhappy females in need of a new haberdasher, pasty-faced academics, and hysterical newscasters and passed-over pundits—is leading in a calm, deliberate, eminently presidential fashion. You might not like some of his chosen modes of communication; you might think using Twitter is unserious or that his colloquial diction is unstatesmanlike. But what we’ve witnessed in less than three months is not only the normalization of Donald Trump everywhere but in the fever swamps of political disenfranchisement, but also his emergence as a figure of rare competence and command. He is well on his way, I believe, to making America great again.
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