Not Quite War

So, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping were going to have a pleasant and informal dinner together at Trump’s gilded resort in Florida, and have a nice chat, president to president. This wasn’t a formal state dinner at the White House with all the formal diplomatic niceties. This was just a chance to get to know each other – man to man – but it was going to be awkward. Trump had spent more than a year saying that China had raped us – they took all our jobs and ruined our economy. In fact, global warming was a hoax that they had invented to ruin our economy – and they were useless on the matter of North Korea too. They were eating our lunch, and Donald Trump was going to put an end to that. He’d bring on the pain – they’d be sorry – but this was dinner, not lunch. Xi Jinping would smile enigmatically. Let him try. Our two economies are so intertwined that their pain would be our pain. They buy our stuff. We buy their stuff. Trump wasn’t going to end that. Trump was going to do nothing. He was a paper tiger – and it would be amusing to watch him eat his words, along with that fancy dinner.

Donald Trump must have known this, but he couldn’t cancel the dinner. He did the next best thing. He minimized it. There would be something more important going on. He’d take calls. He’d step outside to talk to his people, and to the American people. Sorry – something has come up. It was time to start a bit of a war with Syria – well, maybe not a war, but it was time to send in the cruise missiles – lots of them. This was a bit rude, but that may have been intentional. China didn’t matter on China’s special night in Florida. Syria mattered. Xi Jinping must have gotten that message – and shrugged. Paper tigers are all alike. China will be fine.

This Syria thing was a bit unexpected, however. Kevin Drum shows that in this timeline:

Last Friday: Sean Spicer confirms remarks by Secretary of State Tillerson that Trump is okay with leaving Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria. “There is a political reality that we have to accept,” he says.

Tuesday: Trump learns the downside of haphazard policy changes driven mostly by a desire to be different from Obama. Assad, feeling more secure after learning the United States accepts his leadership of Syria, launches a chemical attack on rebels in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

Wednesday: Trump, apparently shocked to find out that Assad is a butcher, says Assad has “crossed many, many lines.”

Today: Trump tells reporters about Assad, “I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.” Tillerson translates this into English: “It would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”

Later today: We learn that the Pentagon is preparing recommendations for military action in Syria.

A few minutes after that: Regime change is once again official policy. “Those steps are underway” for the US to lead an international effort to remove Assad.

That’s a quick shift from let-him-be to toss-him-out, and Drum adds this:

I can hardly wait for Trump to launch a bombing campaign for a few days – something that’s a routine favorite of US presidents – and then declare it a massive, game-changing retaliation, “something that’s never been done before.”

Drum had to wait only a few hours:

The U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield late on Thursday, in the first direct American assault on the government of President Bashar al-Assad since that country’s civil war began six years ago.

The operation, which the Trump administration authorized in retaliation for a chemical attack killing scores of civilians this week, dramatically expands U.S. military involvement in Syria and exposes the United States to heightened risk of direct confrontation with Russia and Iran, both backing Assad in his attempt to crush his opposition.

President Trump said the strike was in the “vital national security interest” of the United States and called on “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”

That was odd. In his America First inaugural address he had said he wasn’t going to be the President of the World. He was going to be the President of the United States – the rest of the world would have to solve their own damned problems. Now he’ll save Syrian women and children, and women and children everywhere – even if that means war with Russia and Iran. That’s what the President of the World does.

And this is what he did:

The missiles were launched from two Navy destroyers – the USS Ross and USS Porter – in the eastern Mediterranean. They struck an airbase called Shayrat in Homs province, which is the site from which the planes that conducted the chemical attack in Idlib are believed to have originated. The targets included air defenses, aircraft, hangars and fuel.

The military said initial indications were that the strike had “severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure.”

Syrian state TV said a U.S. missile attack hit a number of military targets inside the country, calling the attack an “aggression,” according to the Associated Press.

At least they didn’t call it an act of war, and there was this:

U.S. officials said the Russians, who maintain significant forces in Syria, were given advance warning of the strike. There is a Russian military area at the base that was hit, but the U.S. took precautions not to strike that area, according to Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

They actually told the Russians in the area what would be happening when – so they could get out of there. No one told Vladimir Putin about this of course – not his business. This was about Assad. The heads-up to the local Russians was a courtesy.

Was this a good idea? There was disagreement:

Within the administration, some officials urged immediate action against Assad, warning against what one described as “paralysis through analysis.” But others were concerned about second- and third-order effects, including the response of Russia, which also has installed sophisticated air-defense systems in Syria, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Things could spin out of control rather quickly, but care was taken:

Senior White House officials met on the issue of Syria Wednesday evening in a session that lasted into early Thursday, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, have communicated repeatedly since Tuesday’s chemical attack, the officials said.

The U.S. Central Command has had plans for striking the Syrian government for years and currently has significant assets in the region, enabling a quick response once a decision was made…

McMaster described a deliberative process inside the White House and National Security Council, where three options were examined at the request of the president. Trump made the final decision and the strike “clearly indicate the president is willing to take decisive action when called for.” He emphasized, however, that the move did not otherwise alter the U.S. military’s posture in Syria.

This was a one-off attack. Everyone calm down, but there was this:

Earlier Thursday, Tillerson suggested that the United States and other nations would consider somehow removing Assad from power, but he did not say how. Just a few days ago, the White House had said that removing Assad was not realistic with press secretary Sean Spicer saying it was necessary to accept the “political reality” in Syria.

Saddam gassed his own people. We did our thing. Assad gassed his own people. Put two and two together. Some did that:

In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the operation “sent an important message the United States will no longer stand idly by as Assad, aided and abetted by Putin’s Russia, slaughters innocent Syrians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.”

They also called on the administration to take Assad’s air force out of the fight and follow “through with a new, comprehensive strategy in coordination with our allies and partners to end the conflict in Syria.”

Then we go in and do our Iraq thing? The end of conflict is never the end of conflict, and there’s this:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States was forced to act against Syria because “clearly Russia has failed in its responsibility” to secure and destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile under a 2013 agreement brokered with President Obama.

Tillerson said the strikes were also an attempt to push back against Bashar Assad and demonstrate that the world community will not ignore the use of chemical weapons.

“He in effect is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which then might be adopted by others,” Tillerson added during a late-night briefing with reporters in Palm Beach.

In addition, Tillerson said the attack was intended to prevent non-government groups or individuals who could harm Americans from obtaining chemical weapons amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

Tillerson and national security advisor H.R. McMaster said they did not seek permission from Russia before the strike. They did, however, follow agreements to inform the military in an effort to prevent Russian casualties.

“Our target in this attack was not Russia,” Tillerson said. “Our target was this airfield and the Syrian regime.”

Okay, we were warning Russia, but bombing Syria. This was about Russia, but it really wasn’t. Perhaps Putin will understand that, and then there was this:

McMaster minimized the extent to which it would cripple Assad’s regime.

“Obviously, the regime will retain a certain capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons beyond this airfield,” he said.

Okay we were warning Russia, but bombing Syria, and it really didn’t solve the immediate problem. That’s not comforting, but Martin Longman adds this:

If you think about this narrowly, by smacking Assad in the face for using sarin gas, while not doing anything to fundamentally alter the battlefield, the United States is saying that we don’t even have to be dedicated to your defeat in war to punish you for waging war with banned weapons.

That fine, in a limited way:

As with nuclear nonproliferation, it would be best if the United Nations could act with one voice and be the enforcement mechanism, but it cannot act if one of the permanent members of the Security Council blocks action, as Russia has in this case. And, regardless, once the UN authorizes a military response, someone has to carry it out.

There are real problems with the United States bearing this kind of burden, whether it is blessed by the international community or not, but the alternative is nuclear proliferation and battlefield use of WMD without any deterrence or consequence. Either that or these strikes will be carried out by the only other militaries capable of doing them, which would be China or Russia. I’m not ready to hand that responsibility off to them, and they wouldn’t reliably assume the responsibility anyway.

So, we’re treated to the odd spectacle of our president taking a break from meeting with the Chinese president to inform us that he’s launched missile strikes that were not approved by China (a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council) in order to enforce international norms.

A ton could go wrong with this. Our president doesn’t seem to have the capacity or attention span to grasp all the risks of what he’s done here. But it does seem that he listened to his national security staff and made sure to authorize something that has a minimal risk of escalation and doesn’t commit us to any further action in any particular direction.

That may be so, unless Trump was played, and Adam Taylor reports on that theory:

Across the Internet, an alternative take on the horrific attack – widely attributed to the Syrian government – has begun to spread. It was a “false flag,” the theory goes, designed to trick Trump into intervening more forcefully in the Syrian war. Those spreading this theory are often closely linked to the alt-right, a small, far right movement whose members are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.

One of the most notorious figures associated with the movement, Mike Cernovich, posted tweets on Wednesday claiming that the gut-wrenching footage of victims of the attack had been faked.

In another tweet, in which he circumvented Twitter’s character limit by posting an image of text explaining his take, Cernovich suggested that “basic logic and 101 level game theory and strategic thinking” had to be ignored if one were to believe that the Syrian government had gassed its own people.

Instead, he argued, the mass killing was “done by deep state agents.”

Trump’s right-hand man, Steve Bannon, talks about the deep state all the time. He wants to destroy it, as do others:

Cernovich is far from the only person on the right pushing a “false flag” message. His argument has been echoed by a variety of accounts that are loosely ideologically similar, such as the website Infowars, which shared a story suggesting that the attack was staged by groups funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who supports liberal political causes.

The Texas-based website, run by the provocateur Alex Jones, has argued that a group of volunteer rescue workers in Syria commonly known as the White Helmets had “reportedly staged another chemical weapon attack on civilians” and listed allegations it mockingly called “coincidences.”

Like the Sandy Hook massacre and the moon landing, the chemical attack in Syria was faked, and there’s more:

One non-American group that suggested a similar narrative was WikiLeaks – the anti-secrecy organization led by the mercurial and anti-establishment Julian Assange, an Australian citizen who has been living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for five years.

The WikiLeaks Twitter account, widely believed to be controlled by Assange alone, shared a video from a Syrian activist in Germany that said Islamist extremists were probably behind the chemical attack, not the Syrian government.

On the other hand:

The Syrian government has denied ever using chemical weapons. Russia has suggested that an airstrike hit a depot producing chemical weapons for use by Syrian rebels, although one chemical weapons expert told the BBC such an explanation for the attack was “pretty fanciful.”

Limited access to sites in Syria often makes proving or debunking claims difficult. However, autopsies conducted by Turkish doctors on Thursday have confirmed that chemical weapons were used in the attack. The autopsies were conducted under the supervision of the World Health Organization. Doctors Without Borders have said that the victims showed symptoms that were consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.

But on the other hand:

Just in the past week, both Donald Trump Jr. and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway have praised Cernovich. Trump’s son suggested that Cernovich should win a Pulitzer. President Trump has praised Infowars, telling Jones during an interview last year that his reputation was “amazing” and that “I will not let you down.” At a campaign rally, he said, “I love WikiLeaks.”

Taylor notes how this is getting strange:

At the same time, the U.S. president loves to talk tough. But if he does decide to pursue broader military action in Syria or to confront President Bashar al-Assad, the conspiracy-loving U.S. president will find himself in an odd position: He will be viewed as a dupe, conned by a conspiracy, by many who share his worldview.

Yes, but Trump’s right-hand man, Steve Bannon, just lost his seat on the National Security Council. McMaster runs that. He was finally allowed to choose his own staff. He had no use for Bannon, and the most important person in the administration – Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in law – agreed with McMaster. Bannon is livid – but he’s out.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Josh Marshall sees the issue is Donald Trump:

Donald Trump has said all manner of contradictory things about Syria and unilateral airstrikes. He said Obama shouldn’t attack in 2013 and insisted he needed congressional authorization to do so. Now he is contradicting both points. But whether or not Trump is hypocritical is not a terribly important point at the moment. Whether he’s changed his position isn’t that important. But the rapidity and totality with which he’s done so is important. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the intervention question. But impulsive, reactive, unconsidered actions seldom generate happy results.

Another way to put this is that while I agree it’s silly for the now to focus on calling Trump a hypocrite, the man’s mercurial and inconstant nature makes his manner of coming to the decision as important as the decision itself. That tells us whether he’ll have the same worldview tomorrow, whether this is part of any larger plan. There are arguments for intervention and restraint. But given what we know of Trump, it is highly uncertain that this is part of either approach. It may simply be blowing some stuff up.

That’s a worry:

If this action is meant to draw a line saying that the US will exact a price for any use of chemical weapons it may be effective and even worthwhile. But we are already hearing what sounds like a commitment to regime change – in the face of realities that make that ambition seem rather farfetched. Because Trump is so mercurial, so changing from one moment to the next, there’s a very good chance this isn’t really ‘about’ anything, not a part of any strategy or real goal.

This really could be about no more than blowing stuff up, and earlier, Marshall had asked this:

Are we going to launch one painful attack which may not have strategic consequences but signals that we will exact a price for any use of chemical weapons? Are we now going to intervene with the intention of shifting the course of the war – a pretty tall proposition now that Assad holds the whip hand in the conflict and has forces thoroughly intermingled with the Russian army? Are we going to try to create a global coalition to oust Assad? Given the reality on the ground that seems quite hard to figure. Or are we just going to blow a lot of shit up because we are horrified by the pictures we’re seeing?

I do not suggest here that it is obvious what the right thing to do is. But military action should only ever be taken with a clear goal and a serious weighing of the probable and conceivable repercussions.

That’s obvious, and that’s not Trump:

Donald Trump is the ultimate TV President. It sounds like hyperbole but it’s not hyperbole to say that many or most of his key actions are driven not by the counsel of key advisors or intelligence briefings but by things he sees on TV. Often things idiots say on TV. That makes these horrific pictures perhaps more influential than they might be with another President.

In comparable situations, most presidents deal with cases in which public opinion – inflamed by horrors captured on camera – pressures them to act. The power of impulse in Trump’s own head may be enough.

We should just be very concerned that we’re taking very, very consequential and potentially dangerous actions because of horrific pictures. What happened is horrible. The death toll may rise to 100. But upwards of half a million people are estimated to have died in the conflict so far. We have a uniquely impulsive President. We should be very careful and considered in what we do.

It’s now too late for that – but those fifty-nine cruise missiles slammed into Syria only about twelve hours ago. Give it time. Maybe that was it – a dramatic gesture that need not be repeated. And maybe no Russians on the ground died there and Putin will shrug. He knows that Assad is a jerk. There are other ways to keep Syria in his back pocket. And maybe a humiliated Assad won’t lob a whole lot of SCUD missiles at every concentration of American troops now in Syria trying to take that one last city back from ISIS – because now he knows what Trump will do. And maybe Iran, Syria’s closest ally, now won’t go after our troops in the region, or restart their nuclear program. They too could shrug.

Don’t bet on it – and Xi Jinping flies back to China to set up the new Transpacific Partnership without us and soon controls all Pacific Rim trade. Trump had been a distracted rude host. Xi Jinping is smiling.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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