Thursday night, Donald Trump got up before the nation to explain the justification for the cruise missile strike he had just launched at a Syrian airbase, a sudden about-face from a president who had seemed disinclined to antagonize Syrian president Bashar al Assad before chemical weapons were used on Syrian civilians earlier this week. "Assad choked out the lives of innocent men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack," Trump said after the missile attack. "No child of God should ever suffer such horror. Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched."
This act of war was the first thing that Trump did that earned bipartisan acclaim. On CNN, Fareed Zakaria said that Trump "became president" as a result. Republican senator John McCain applauded Trump on Morning Joe Friday morning, saying, "This is a beginning, and a lot of hard things have to be done, but without this [airstrike], those other things couldn't have been done either." Many Democrats took issue with the attack not because they didn't believe it should be carried out, but because he didn't seek congressional approval—Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi pretty much gave Trump a thumbs-up. Hillary Clinton even chimed in before the missile strike to say that the US should be "more willing to confront Assad."
On MSNBC, Brian Williams remarked, "We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: 'I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.'" A New York Times op-ed from a former Obama deputy secretary of state declared, "President Donald J. Trump was right to strike at the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad."
The notable thing here is that Trump's foreign policy was supposed to be a break from the usual bipartisan pro-intervention shtick. Although Trump isn't known for sticking to his word, he used his outspokenness against American intervention in Syria and the Iraq War to seem like a less war-prone candidate than the obviously hawkish Hillary Clinton. During the campaign Trump warned, "You're going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton." Before he was a candidate, he kept telling Barack Obama not to attack Syria, and even last week he was apparently fine with keeping Assad in power.
Nevertheless, the attack shouldn't come as a surprise. During the campaign, he also promised to "quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS," so to put it in the words of his most loyal supporter, Twitter gadfly Bill Mitchell, there was no question that he'd have "the guts to pull the trigger." First and foremost, Trump is impulsive. He doesn't care about ideology one way or another, and he loves cable news. More than anything, he wants people to see him as a winner, to be popular. And as he just appears to have figured out, nothing is more popular than military action in the name of "humanitarianism."
The disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan taught us that liberals, conservatives, and cable-news pundits love a good war. It makes for exciting television, gives talking heads an excuse to appear extra patriotic, and lets politicians signal to their voters how tough they are. It doesn't appear pundits learned their lesson from Iraq—it took hundreds of thousands of deaths and a shift public opinion in order for the political class to admit that the war was a mistake based on bad intelligence. Yet media outlets still warmly welcome George W. Bush on their programs, and cable news is still eager to champion more war, as was illustrated Thursday night.
Trump didn't start a new war on Thursday. The US was already engaged in the Syrian conflict; he's just ramping it up. The president has no qualms about using the world's most powerful military. And apparently, nearly everyone else is going to support him when he does.
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