Pundits Bite Trump’s Syria Strike Bait—the American People Don’t

Assad put on one kind of show. In retaliation, Trump put on another. And voters yawned.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Is it not obvious now that this Syria incursion was a puppet show? Wow, 59 whole bombs! You’d never know from most of the coverage that since 2014, under the bombing campaign initiated by that president who (you remember) wanted America to lose and be humiliated, the United States has conducted more than 15,000 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria (about 7,400 in Syria)—in other words, that we’ve dropped many, many times that number of bombs on Syria and have been for some time.

Yes, these bombs were different. They were the first ones aimed at Assad. But to call the raid even a “pinprick” is an insult to pins. Or pricks. Or something. The Syrian air force was using the struck base’s runway the next day, less than 24 hours after the strike!

Everybody got played here. Militaristic supporters of the strike, who heralded a new manly manliness in U.S. projection of power; reflexively antiwar opponents, who hooped and hollered about the onset of World War III; and most of all the long-suffering Syrian people, and others in the Arab world, who have been desperate for the United States to take on Assad and sang the praises of “Abu Ivanka” over the weekend.

And I say this as someone who—this may shock you—supported the action. Yes. The decades-long international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons on civilians exists for many good reasons, and it should be enforced. Yes, I know it’s been enforced inconsistently, and I know the United States used them in Vietnam.

But yet one more sorry wrong doesn’t make a right. I thought President Obama should have acted back in 2013 when the Syrian government first used these weapons, so it would be inconsistent and dishonest of me to oppose same just because it was done by a president I don’t like (the “inconsistent and dishonest” portion of this column, meanwhile, is a few paragraphs below).

So I say, however big a moral cretin is the sitting president, the value in telling a despot who uses chemical weapons that he will pay some price for doing so is great enough to warrant some action. Or I said that to myself the night of the attack, last Thursday.

Now, however, I’m not even sure what we did constitutes even a rap on the knuckles. As the days pass, it seems to be coming clearer and clearer that for Trump, this was little more than one night’s good television. I don’t doubt that he was moved by the video footage he saw; everyone has a heart, so even Trump must. And it seems clear that he thought this would divert the bloodhounds from the Russia-Trump campaign trail for a while; encourage his useful stooges in the congressional GOP to say, “See, what collusion?” And he also must have thought what the hell, it’ll help my poll numbers.

But in the darkest corners of his mind, the places where the dopamine never stops racing, this was another television show. Assad put on one kind of show. In retaliation, Trump put on another.

And certainly his reviews were better than Assad’s. Did I mention that the media got played, especially cable TV? Well, that too. Brian Williams: Leave Leonard Cohen out of it. And Fareed Zakaria is one of the smartest foreign-policy commentators we have, someone I respect a great deal. But…“I think Donald Trump became president last night”—really? I thought Trump “became president” the night he waddled over to Capitol Hill back in February and managed to read from a script for an hour without embarrassing either himself or the United States of America. No, that was Van Jones who said it that night, but same diff. Fellow Commentariat-istas, let’s not use the phrase “Trump became president tonight/last night/today” until he does something that is genuinely impressive and out of character and quite unexpected. Like, say, demanding that Congress allow a few thousand of those “beautiful babies” to come to America as refugees.

We’ll see what comes of Rex Tillerson’s meetings in Moscow. Maybe the bromance really is over. But there aren’t many actual signs so far that Trump is developing a real commitment to ousting Assaad. It is, however, very useful to both Trump and Putin for the rest of us schlemiels to think it’s over.

But here’s a piece of good news. One group of people weren’t duped, and they’re the most important group of all: the American people. Trump may have thought the attack would boost his numbers, and most of the talking heads were, of course, certain of it. But on the early evidence, it looks like the people yawned. The Gallup daily tracking poll has had Trump stuck at 40 percent, not moving up a single point since the raid.

That’s not to say that some Americans didn’t like the bombing, which brings us back to the hypocrisy point. A Washington Post-ABC poll came out asking people whether they supported the act by party identification. Turned out that 37 percent of Democrats backed it, and, unsurprisingly, 86 percent of Republicans. This was then compared to the numbers when Obama was considering a strike in 2013. Then, 38 percent of Democrats backed the idea. Republicans? Just 22 percent. Hey, it’s just a 64-point differential!

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It seems that overall the American public may know what the talking heads and insiders on both sides of the debate about the raid don’t know: This was no major departure in policy and certainly suggests nothing so lofty that it could be called a Trump Doctrine. He was all over the map during the campaign, by turns isolationist and bellicose, and that’s still where he is. Which is fine—we’re all probably safer that way. We should all fear the day he figures out what he thinks.