Thursday night’s Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian air base was intended to do two things: give Trump’s flailing presidency a domestic “win” in the court of public opinion, and to undercut the narrative that Trump has undisclosed ties to Putin, which are the subject of ongoing FBI and Congressional investigations. Since Assad is supported by Russia, the attack was meant to demonstrate defiance toward Putin – as well as a measure of humanitarianism in avenging the dictator’s chemical weapons attack on his own people – the very people that Trump has been trying to ban from entering the US.
The first goal may have been partially achieved. For some reason, a president’s decision to launch missiles or drop bombs on another country is always hailed as a “presidential moment.” I guess this is true, if you consider that presidents can kill people by simply giving an order, whereas that will get most civilians in some trouble. And sure enough, the media gave him his “presidential moment”, and even Chuck Schumer came out in favor of the strike, denouncing the gas attack as an atrocity against international law, and proclaiming that Assad will now know he will suffer the consequences if he should dare such a transgression again.
As for the second goal, disputing the narrative of Trump’s ties to Russia, the strike was a mixed bag. Sure, the distraction of a missile attack on another country is big news, and it succeeded in pulling some attention away from the litany of suspicious contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian election hackers. But on the merits, the strike does not disprove the larger narrative of collusion in the least.
First, this was set up as a one-off strike by Trump’s surrogates. We now know that Russians were warned we were going to strike, and they in turn informed the Syrians. Both evacuated personnel and moved military assets in preparation for the expected and announced strike (remember candidate Trump saying we had to keep ’em guessing?). Putin made the obligatory show of loudly denouncing the strike as a violation of international law (which it actually pretty much was), mobilizing a missile-armed frigate toward the region, and negating an agreement that protected US flights over Syria from being shot at – before quietly reinstating the agreement the same day.
In short, we launched about 59 Tomahawks, better than $100 million worth of ordnance, at an essentially abandoned airfield in a country vociferously supported by the Russians, who were given the chance to haul ass in advance, did some arguable damage to planes and fueling stations that will be readily replenished and net Putin some significant arms sales, and suffered no consequences other than flexing of muscles which amounted to no more than window-dressing. This was essentially what George W. Bush once described as shooting a $2 million missile into a $10 tent and hitting a camel. The airbase was active by the very next day, and Assad has gone right back to using it to launch another chemical attack on his own people, this time chlorine.
You have to be kidding me. They might as well be high-fiving each other and laughing at how stupid the public can be. If Putin was genuinely outraged, there would be real belligerent moves, which would truly ratchet us up to a higher alert level. We’d be seeing our ships being overflown by Russian fighters. We’d see a missile fired over a destroyer. We’d see a replay of the delicate dance of increasing belligerence on both sides, as the nation was gripped in the anxiety of the threat of real war breaking out.
You’re seeing none of that, and that’s why this was one big piece of theater intended to distract. My big column yesterday said that we would learn much from Russia’s response or lack thereof. The lackluster and pro forma show of outrage shows us all we need to know.
The investigations must continue. There is much still to know.