Trump's Syria missile attack was not heroic, it was hypocritical and ego-driven

by Paul Thomas / 21 April, 2017
A US destroyer launches a missile. Photo/Getty Images

A US destroyer launches a missile. Photo/Getty Images

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Donald Trump’s nauseatingly sentimental explanation for the US missile attack on Syria sought to lend a heroic lustre to a hypocritical, ego-driven decision.

It now verges on received wisdom that Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House validates Adlai Stevenson’s aphorism: “In America, anyone can be president; that’s one of the risks you take.”

Stevenson, the Governor of Illinois, lost two presidential elections – 1952 and 1956 – to another Republican who had never held elected office: Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and, subsequently, Nato, and populariser of the term “military-industrial complex”.

We can take it a step further: once sworn into office, anyone, regardless of their personal and professional inadequacies, can be presidential: all they have to do is bomb someone. This is easier than it sounds since their actual involvement in the process is minimal; they simply acquiesce to a recommendation. A message is dispatched to officers on a naval vessel somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean who press a button; a few minutes later, missiles strike the target. The blood on the presidential hands is entirely metaphorical.

But in the alternative reality inhabited by the cable-news pundits, giving the go-ahead is statesmanlike, if not heroic. At a stroke, President Anyone is transformed into President Someone and showered with praise for being “decisive”, “sending a clear message” and “restoring America’s credibility”.

Donald Trump: “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered.” Photo/Getty Images

Hasty use of force

The media’s swooning over the sort of theatrics that former President George W Bush derided as firing a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hitting a camel in the butt is just one of several aspects of America’s strike on Syria in retaliation for the chemical attack on the northern town of Khan Sheikoun that provokes cynicism. Another is the mindset that hasty use of force represents strong leadership, whereas painstaking analysis leading to the conclusion that a military flourish won’t achieve anything worthwhile and risks making a bad situation worse is an abrogation of leadership.

Of course, Trumpism is powered by ego and values emotion and instinct far above analysis and intellect, so we shouldn’t have been surprised that President Anyone framed the issue in sentimental terms. Reacting to the images of the dead after Bashar al-Assad had launched the strike – “even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at [sic] this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror” – he was like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Well, almost 500,000 have died, many of them children and often horribly, in the Syrian civil war. Children have been injured in indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, then finished off by targeted bombing of the hospitals where they were being treated. Children have died in agony in what the Guardian, in a report on the Syrian opposition’s efforts to document the regime’s crimes against humanity, described as “the gruesome archipelago of torture and murder chambers”.

The genocidal inclinations of the Assad clan have been well known since at least 1982, when the current ruler’s father unleashed his army on the town of Hama, the hub of an opposition movement led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The three-week artillery barrage and subsequent “cleansing” killed between 20,000 and 40,000 men, women and children.

What is more, America has shown itself to be only too happy to tap into the Syrian regime’s expertise at inflicting suffering. Bob Baer is a former CIA case officer with extensive experience of the Middle East. Two of his books formed the basis for the 2005 Academy Award-winning film Syriana, in which George Clooney plays a character loosely based on Baer. In 2004, discussing the rendition phase of the war on terror, Baer told the New Statesman: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley with pictures of child victims of the chemical attack. Photo/Getty Images

Given that Trump recently received Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the White House and fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria, Assad must be feeling terribly unappreciated.

What about the hypocrisy of such tear-jerking rhetoric from someone who advocated murdering terrorists’ families? And while we’re on the subject of beautiful children, what of eight-year-old Yemeni-American girl Nawar al-Awlaki, one of as many as 30 civilians killed in a US assault on a suspected al Qaeda compound in Yemen on January 29? Trump’s reaction then was not to express regret, let alone outrage, over the death of an innocent, but to blame his generals because the raid wasn’t deemed to have been a success and proclaim that the legacy of a Navy Seal who also died in the attack was “etched into eternity”.

Trump’s behaviour is a textbook example of what Yale University psychologist Paul Bloom calls “morally corrosive emotional empathy”: “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now. This makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blinds us as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathise with. Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is short-sighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favouring the one over the many …”

Abdul Hamid Youssef lost 22 relatives in the chemical attack, including his wife and his twins Ahmed and Aiya.

Lines in the sands

There is an argument for selective intervention: just because we can’t do everything doesn’t necessarily mean we should do nothing. In this instance, the case for military force is that the Syrian regime crossed one of those lines that America keeps detecting in the sands of the Middle East. Chemical weapons “are indiscriminate and they kill in a particularly horrific way”, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington advocacy group. “They’re taboo.”

However, the distinction makes Trump and the West seem fastidiously detached, not really objecting to Assad’s slaughter of his own people as such, but somewhat peevishly requesting that he refrain from putting them on the spot. As Abdulkafi Al-Hamdu, an English teacher and activist reporting from inside Syria, put it: “The message was, ‘Go ahead with any barrel bombs, vacuum rockets, cluster bombs, phosphorus weapons … just not chemical weapons.’”

Once again, the international community confronts the dilemma: what to do when the citizens of a sovereign country insist on butchering one another? The obvious answer – intervention by a multinational force under the auspices of the UN – is easier said than done, because the major players’ strategic interests rarely align and the bulk of the heavy lifting is inevitably left to the US.

Understandably, post-Iraq America opted not to intervene. Russia and Iran have intervened, not to end the killing by keeping the warring parties apart, but to secure victory for their dog in the fight. Given the dog in question, that’s to their shame and may ultimately be to their detriment, as these gambits often are. America should watch and wait, hard as that might be.

Nawar al-Awlaki, 8, killed in a US assault.

Whether because of the images of the dead children of Khan Sheikoun or his daughter’s heartbreak and outrage, of which we were notified by Twitter, Trump’s attitude towards Syria and Assad “changed very much”. But his attention span is as short as his interest in policy is negligible and the confusing and contradictory pronouncements of his officials and surrogates – one minute Assad has got to go, the next the emphasis is back on defeating Isis – make it impossible to tell whether there really has been a “pivot” or this setting will simply expire at the end of the news cycle.

Military gestures made in a policy vacuum are unlikely to achieve anything worthwhile and risk triggering a wider, deadlier conflagration. Except in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Soviet Union/Russia and America have been adversaries since 1945, but their forces have never confronted each other on the battlefield (at least officially: during the Korean War, Soviet pilots flew missions for North Korea but it suited all concerned to pretend otherwise).

There were thousands of Soviet “advisers” in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the USSR contributed heavily to the communist cause in terms of military hardware and intelligence. The US backed the mujahideen who resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but support, covert or overt, never extended to the point of actually fighting.

There was a very good reason for the subterfuge and caution: if hostilities were joined and the two nuclear-armed powers started knocking bits off each other, where would it end? What would happen if neither side blinked?

Such dissembling is impossible in Syria and bellicose posturing has, for the time being anyway, supplanted caution. The fact that the two countries are engaged militarily, albeit in America’s case in a limited capacity, on opposing sides of the conflict creates the potential for a frightening confrontation. One country is led by an authoritarian who has restored the national security state in his own, rather than his party’s image; the other by a thin-skinned novice. Both political personas and, one suspects, self-images are of being saviour and bully. That only doubles the fear factor.

This article was first published in the April 22, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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