EDITORIAL: Syria response suitable; Trump response less so
Make no mistake: The Syrian regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, for the most part, got what it deserved over the weekend.
The military strikes launched by the U.S., France and the United Kingdom were largely a just and commensurate response to the ongoing use of chemical weapons by al-Assad against Syrian civilians. Scores of missiles struck a trio of scientific research and chemical weapons installations in Syria nearly a week after a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Syrian city of Douma outside of Damascus.
Video images showed civilians, including children, suffering the effects of the chemical onslaught — the latest in a campaign of similar attacks by the Syrian government during its ongoing civil war. Some 70 people died in the Douma assault; hundreds more were injured.
Frankly, the global response to the humanitarian crisis that has been al-Assad’s assault on his own people these past seven years has been disappointingly tepid, and that includes former President Barack Obama’s refusal to more forcibly hold the regime responsible.
So credit the Trump administration for coordinating a valid — and, hopefully, effective —retaliation to this most recent atrocity.
But hold any applause for President Donald Trump himself, who, characteristically, spent the days leading up to and after the military strike focused not on the mission but on himself.
Recall, the strikes capped a politically abominable week for the Oval Office occupant, even by Trumpian standards.
Monday saw FBI agents, acting on a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, conduct an unprecedented raid on the private quarters and office of Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Trump was apoplectic, musing openly about firing Mueller (which he cannot do) or his direct boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (which he can do).
Thursday brought unflattering portrayals of Trump in the form of excerpts from the new book by former FBI Director James Comey. Trump was enraged, taking to Twitter to rant: “a LEAKER & LIAR … an untruthful slimeball.”
Then came word that the National Enquirer — already known to have paid for a story from a former Playboy model who alleged an affair with Trump, just so they could bury it — paid $30,000 to quiet a source claiming the president had a child out of wedlock in the 1980s.
Such was the torrent of tawdriness that a story that, in normal times, would have dominated the week — House Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement that he will not seek reelection, a decision widely viewed as weakening Republican prospects for maintaining their majority in the House following the fall elections — was largely an afterthought.
These were the clouds out of which the military strikes on Syria emerged.
It is too pat to suggest the decision was intended to distract from the scandal-filled headlines. Unlike the president’s travel ban or attempt to boot transgender troops from military service, they were the result not of a rash tweet, but of coordinated planning both within the administration and among foreign allies. But it is not unfair to suggest the president welcomed the distraction.
Three points about the Syrian action:
- It was evidently successful despite presidential muddling and meddling. Trump’s tweeted warnings midweek that “missiles were coming” was a soft-headed, self-serving (and, perhaps, distraction-intending) move that belied the president’s own oft-stated respect for “the element of surprise” in military matters. Likewise, cancelling a planned trip to South America so he could “oversee the Syrian situation” amateurishly telegraphed the response.
- It was diminished by the president’s post-strike tweet that crowed “Mission Accomplished!” Not only is such a statement unnecessary and unseemly (especially as social media fodder), it is politically unwise, echoing a similarly ill-considered and regrettable statement by a previous Republican president. It is also untrue; Syria’s civil war continues and civilians remain in the crosshairs.
- Finally, it threw into sharp — not to say painful — relief just how utterly unfit Trump is for the office of president. The seriousness of international coordination, the political calculations of military strikes, the weight of global warfare, these are matters best left to minds not preoccupied with tweeting commercials for favorite cable television programs (which, yes, Trump did last week).
In striking Syria, the United States and its allies did something the president seems congenitally incapable of doing: responding seriously and appropriately to actions that threaten others.