My brother called around dinnertime yesterday to tell me that Trump had launched a cruise missile attack against Syria.
I told him that they almost certainly gave the Russians a heads up which meant the Syrians probably had some time to get ready. I went back to binge-watching Fargo into the wee hours of the morning.
As expected, the Americans did notify the Russians and it appears they passed along the warning to Assad's people. This morning I had a look at some video of the airbase the Americans targeted. Some aircraft shelters were hit but many more seemed to have been unaffected, their 60s vintage Sukhoi 17s sitting inside apparently intact. A little bit of runway damage but nothing that can't be readily fixed. 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles for that? I would have expected the place to have been flattened.
Back when the Sovs were building those Su-17s there was a term popular with the anti-Vietnam War crowd - "reactionary." It was used to describe rightwing responses, reactions to events that seemed independent of established policy. Collectively, it amounted to a basketful of incoherence. Donald Trump is nothing if not reactionary.
There’s a lot to be said for moral clarity after the Assad regime’s disgusting chemical attacks that murdered so many civilians in northern Syria this week. But that’s not what Trump represents. His moral certainty was nowhere to be found in 2013, after the first large-scale chemical attacks that crossed Obama’s infamous red line. “President Obama, do not attack Syria,” tweeted Trump. “There is no upside and tremendous downside.”
Now Trump himself is upside down on Syria. He initially blamed Obama and his red line for the chemical attacks this week, insisting that the overblown rhetoric had hurt the United States. This from a man who told this gem to reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday: “I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency.”
Yes, Donald Trump is a great big bag of contradictions and he just swaggered his way into the single most complex civil war in living memory. A war that is even more complicated than raising a high-rise hotel in a foreign capital.
This was the kind of quandary Obama couldn’t resolve. Could they launch effective strikes without triggering a full war with the Assad regime and its Russian supporters? What would all those strikes do to the very civilians the US was supposedly concerned about?
A cynical mind could question whether the attack was just a massively frustrated Trump blowing off steam - doing something, anything to look decisive, powerful.
The big question is what now? Is this an impulsive one-off reaction to a gas attack? Will the White House develop some Trump Doctrine? Will Putin find some way to play Trump?
UPDATE - BBC offers an interesting look at Trump's "war room" photo from Mar a Lago in contrast to Obama's photo during the operation to kill bin Laden.