The Stopped Clock

Donald Trump is easy enough to explain. Too many people were left behind when the economy recovered from the Bush disaster. It was globalization. It was automation. It was old industries dying as technical wizards invented now ones – coal miners won’t be needed now. Maybe it was Mexicans. Maybe it was the Chinese. Maybe it was Obamacare, or the Environmental Protection Agency. It didn’t matter. Times were tough for too many people, and when times are tough people look for someone who will make things all better, someone who will knock a few heads together and get things done, not like the useless fools now in power, who got us into this mess – and there were no times tougher than the thirties.

That explains Donald Trump. That’s the model. The Great Depression was a worldwide depression and there weren’t a lot of strong leaders around – but there were a few. The word was that say what you will about Mussolini, at least, over there, the trains ran on time. That wasn’t quite true – not that it mattered. The idea was that even if he was an awful man, Mussolini cut through the crap and got things done. Italy was recovering from the Great Depression. We were not. He was a strong leader.

Charles Lindbergh felt the same way about Hitler. After the kidnapping and murder of their son, he and his wife moved to Europe for a time. Lindbergh attended a few Nazi rallies. He was impressed. These folks had their act together, and as one of the many American isolationists at the time, he saw no reason we should go fight them:

Upon Lindbergh’s return to the States, he agitated for neutrality with Germany, and testified before Congress in opposition to the Lend-Lease policy, which offered cash and military aid to countries friendly to the United States in their war effort against the Axis powers. His public denunciation of “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration” – as instigators of American intervention in the war – as well as comments that smacked of anti-Semitism – lost him the support of other isolationists. When, in 1941, President Roosevelt denounced Lindbergh publicly, the aviator resigned from the Air Corps Reserve.

That was a scandal, but we eventually forgave Charles Lindbergh. In 1957 Jimmy Stewart played Lindbergh in a famous movie – directed by Billy Wilder, a German Jew who got the hell out of Berlin when Hitler rose to power and ended up here in Hollywood. That was odd, but many years had passed. The thirties had been a bit crazy. People had been enamored by the idea of a strong leader who would cut through all the crap and get something done – anything – even if that leader was a murderous psychopath like Hitler or a buffoon like Mussolini. Times were tough. It took years, but mostly another World War, to straighten out all of this. Mussolini should have been laughed off the world stage. Many expected that, but Mussolini was impervious to his own buffoonery – and the trains did run on time over there, more or less.

That was something. Mussolini was the strong leader who would cut through all the crap and get something done. Donald Trump is the strong leader who will cut through all the crap and get something done – even if he too is a bit of a buffoon. Trump, however, has no use for trains. He plans to eliminate all federal funding for Amtrak’s national train network – but this isn’t the thirties so that might not matter much. He needs something else. He needs to do one thing right, something that will make all the buffoonery excusable. After all, a stopped clock is right two times a day. He needs to be right two times a day. In fact, one time will do. He needs that stopped-clock moment.

He figured it out. He bombed Syria. That had to be done. That was the right thing to do. That made all the rest of his nonsense excusable.

That’s a trap, as Slate’s Isaac Chotiner explains here:

Finally, after months of fear and anguish and deep depression, liberals have been feeling good again. Trump’s approval ratings are historically low, his adviser Steve Bannon is struggling to hold onto power, and the Trump administration’s major legislative achievements are nil. Meanwhile, the press is thriving in “opposition” mode (at least compared with its performance during much of the campaign), Democrats are furiously raising money, and the congressional GOP is in chaos. But the pathetic plaudits Trump received Thursday night for the airstrike he ordered against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria should serve as a reminder of how capable Trump remains of regaining the narrative of his faltering presidency – and why a relatively “normal” Trump administration may be even scarier than the cartoonishly villainous one we’ve seen up until now.

Trump had his stopped-clock moment:

As we saw following Trump’s first address to Congress, the president is so nightmarish that some of us who observe him are desperate to forget who precisely America elected and are forever hoping he can change. This can manifest itself consciously or unconsciously. It began Thursday, before the strike, when Hillary Clinton said she believed the United States should take out Assad’s airfields. That would have been a more plausible suggestion in a different universe than the one we live in – a universe in which a bigoted, Muslim-hating, and incompetent man wasn’t the commander in chief of the United States armed forces. It continued throughout the afternoon and evening as the missile strike launched and Trump received heavy praise on cable news. Fareed Zakaria said on CNN that this airstrike was the moment Trump had “become president.” Not only was this nonsense a near-repeat of what Van Jones had said on CNN following Trump’s speech to Congress, but it ignored January’s botched Yemen raid, a military action that Trump ordered. (For what it’s worth, the United States is already engaged in combat in Iraq and Syria with some of the groups fighting Assad.)

The nonsense continued throughout Thursday night and Friday morning. Matt K. Lewis, the Daily Beast writer and CNN personality, took note of the references to God in Trump’s statement on the airstrikes and salivated over the president’s moral seriousness. Even worse was Mark Landler’s “news analysis” in the New York Times on why Trump, who has shown a strong affinity for dictators and little concern for suffering, greenlit the attack. Failing to mention that the president was in the process of banning refugees from America, Landler painted a laughable picture of a man consumed with grief because of images of children dying. (“On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First,” the Times tweeted.) Not only does coverage like this badly distort an important issue like Syria, but it serves as a reminder (as if one were needed) of exactly the boost – not to mention the political capital – Trump would gain in the case of a national emergency or terrorist attack. As if a Trump with normal powers wasn’t horrifying enough.

Yeah, but the trains were running on time, metaphorically of course, so all was just fine:

Barack Obama was criticized for not launching an attack on Assad after the latter crossed Obama’s “red line,” and many people have made cases – ranging from completely legitimate and thoughtful to entirely bonkers -that America should be more involved in the anti-Assad side of the Syrian conflict. Coupled with the news that the White House nationalists may be on the way out, or at least struggling against the more establishment-friendly wing of the administration, it makes sense that seeing Trump act like a normal politician would feel good.

Chotiner doesn’t buy that:

Trump is not – and will never be – a normal president. He is an uninformed and dangerously unstable one. If he wants to conduct military action without congressional approval, he should be challenged, not lauded. The prospect of someone with Trump’s limited focus and understanding immersing the United States more deeply in another foreign conflict is unnerving – especially when that conflict is taking place in a region that predominantly practices a religion Trump despises. And there is something additionally terrifying about a petty and insecure man who seeks nothing more than praise… receiving praise for military action.

That’s an issue, but Andrew Sullivan sees other issues:

The missile launch was not about attacking ISIS. It actually attacks one of ISIS’s direst foes. It represents a complete U-turn from Trump’s previous position that Obama should never have intervened in Syria at all – a position he believed in so strongly, he tweeted endlessly about it at the time. The attack risks our becoming more involved in a Middle Eastern civil war – another position Trump constantly derided for years and in the campaign. It will disrupt Trump’s hope for a rapprochement with Russia (although he pointedly avoided a wider attack that would almost certainly have killed Russians as well as Syrians) — another turn on an emotional dime. It follows his decision to increase the U.S. involvement in Yemen’s Shiite-Sunni civil war, involvement that was never even presented to the Congress, and that killed, among many other civilians, ten children. The candidate who promised to avoid military conflict in the Middle East has reversed himself and become an interventionist – if only from a safe distance.

But coherence was never Trump’s strong point, as we have discovered with his support for a healthcare bill that would have thrown 24 million people off health insurance after he had explicitly promised to cover everyone. And he believes in surprise. Unpredictability and incoherence seem to be the mark of America’s foreign policy now, it appears.

Look: I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that his revulsion at the gassing of children was the prompt for this dramatic and sudden use of military power. But there will doubtless be a rally in popularity at the precise moment he is sinking in the polls, appears increasingly stalled in Washington, and is desperate for a distraction. But quite what follows from this sudden impetuous drama in the Middle East remains, of course, to be seen. The one thing we know about Trump is that he hasn’t carefully thought it through.

To put that another way, that stopped clock is right for only two brief moments each day. The rest of the time it’s totally useless.

Maybe that stopped clock is dangerous. Phillip Carter thinks it is:

What comes next, and how this ultimately ends, depends on what military steps come next – by the United States, as well as the Russians, Syrians, Iranians, and others active in the region. Moreover, Thursday’s strike complicates nearly everything we are now doing in Syria, potentially setting in motion a chain reaction of conflict whose end is difficult to foresee or control.

It seems that time marches on:

Based on comments by the president and his senior advisers, the bombing represents a more forceful way of telling the Syrians to abstain from chemical warfare. Whether the bombings will produce the intended result – or whether the U.S. will need to conduct more such strikes or other military operations to inflict pain on the Syrian regime – remains to be seen.

However, President Trump also alluded to other objectives in Syria beyond merely disciplining Bashar al-Assad and his military for their use of chemical weapons – what he termed a “vital national security interest.” The president talked of the “refugee crisis” in Syria that “continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.” And he spoke about the broader civil war and its impact on civilians, ending his statement on a broadly aspirational note that the U.S. would stand for justice in the world. In the days leading up to the missile strike, Trump’s advisers also alluded to a range of other goals, including the easing out (or forceful replacement) of Assad, with presumably some U.S. role in rebuilding post-Assad, postwar Syria.

That’s a lot of stuff, and not one-wonderful-moment stuff:

If Trump is serious about doing something about the Syria refugee crisis, that foreshadows a certain set of military options. The most obvious of these is the combination of a “no-fly zone” and the establishment of some safe zone on the ground for Syrian civilians. The U.S. military has set up no-fly zones before in Iraq and other parts of the world. This would likely involve some further bombing to degrade Syrian air defenses and command networks, followed by the establishment of a persistent air presence over Syria capable of shooting down Syrian aircraft. These operations require manned aircraft to execute, putting U.S. pilots and aircrews at significant risk, especially during the initial phases of attacking Syrian’s vaunted air defenses. Moreover, Russian forces are currently deployed at Syrian bases throughout the countryside. Any significant attacks on Syria will necessarily mean U.S. attacks that kill Russian troops, escalating the conflict significantly.

And it won’t work anyway:

While no one in the Trump administration has called explicitly for a safe zone on the ground, it’s difficult to see how a no-fly zone alone would protect Syria’s civilians without some ground sanctuary where they can reside and receive humanitarian assistance. Syria has a large army that can (and likely will) continue its slaughter even without air support. Setting up such a safe zone would require the introduction of U.S. ground forces in sufficient numbers – at least several thousand at first – to seize and hold territory. Setting up a safe zone would mark a major expansion of the U.S. commitment to the Syrian war, far above and beyond what exists on the ground in Iraq or Syria today.

To state an obvious point: Establishing a no-fly zone and refugee sanctuary will both be substantially more difficult now that the U.S. has made an enemy of the Assad regime. This increased enmity means more force will be needed to protect the civilians, because of the increased likelihood that Syria will contest the U.S. moves.

And then there’s the ISIS issue, and Russia:

Early reports suggest that, in addition to damaging elements of the Syrian air force, the Thursday airstrike hit some of the Syrian army units fighting ISIS. As a consequence, Syria’s counter-ISIS efforts may be degraded, forcing Syrian army units to devote more attention to protecting themselves. That, in the end, could hurt U.S. interests in the region and force us and our proxies to take on more of the ISIS fight ourselves.

Thursday’s strike also upsets the uneasy détente that had grown between the U.S., Russia, and other countries operating inside Syria. This relationship had never matured to the point where U.S. and Russian forces were fighting together like they did during World War II, but at least there was the potential for further cooperation down the line. Not anymore.

Further, the Russians’ expansive presence in Syria increases the stakes of American involvement. Indeed, Russia may decide to help its client state Syria more as the result of this airstrike, frustrating further U.S. action, particularly if such action comes to include regime change.

And then there’s Assad:

Regime change in Syria will not happen on its own. Assad must be forced out, either through a coalition of U.S., Arab, and indigenous forces that puts pressure on the regime or via more direct action by the U.S. and its allies. The post-Assad situation looks grim, because of the brutality of Syria’s civil war, its enormous population dislocations, and the power vacuum that will follow Assad. Some type of post-Assad reconstruction effort must come together to put Syria back together if (or when) Assad goes. Arguably, only the U.S. has the experience and capability to lead such an effort. But in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Trump administration’s political commitments to put America first, it’s unclear the nation or its leaders have the stomach for what may be required.

And of course the real functional clock is running:

So far, the president’s statement Thursday night, coupled with a lack of military and diplomatic follow-up to the strikes, suggests the U.S. has not yet decided what to do next, much less developed a broader strategy for Syria. That needs to change. This week’s strikes marked an inflection point for U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict; we are now part of this war. If the U.S. wants to achieve the objectives described by President Trump, it must do more than lob a few cruise missiles into the desert.

Yeah, but it seemed like a good idea at the time, and Michael Gerson addresses that:

It is either a turning point or a welcome aberration that President Trump found the cruelly extinguished lives of Syrian children to be compelling (or at least contributory) in his decision to use force in Syria. The nerve gas attack by the Bashar al-Assad regime, he said, “crossed a lot of lines for me – innocent children, innocent babies – babies, little babies.”

Much of Trump’s appeal during his presidential campaign was based on dehumanization – the characterization of migrants as criminals and refugees as terrorist threats. This is the first instance I can recall of Trump showing public empathy for the lives of foreigners. It was jarring in its humanity. Trump engaged in the humanization of Syrian war victims. And that merits praise.

But that was just one moment in time:

We still have no idea whether Trump’s military response was a moral impulse alone or a policy change – a symbol or a strategy. We know that Trump is capable of impulsive ad-hockery. There is less reason to be confident he is thinking three, four or five steps down the road. Does this signal a new attitude toward Russia’s expanded role in the Middle East or to the status of Assad in Syria’s future? Will every future mass atrocity gain such treatment? And why, when you think about it, is the crime of using nerve agents against civilians more heinous than killing them with forced starvation or barrel bombs?

That’s a good question, but Trump was having “a moment” – good for him – a wonderful thing – the stopped clock told the right time, at that moment. That merits praise, but for presidents, time marches on:

The specter haunting U.S. foreign policy is not so much the Iraq War as the Libya debacle. The imminent destruction of Benghazi provoked a moral and military response from Obama – an air campaign that worked well in its initial stages. But little thought and fewer resources were devoted to the follow-up. And what resulted was a jihadist playground.

The problem with Obama’s Syria response was not just its moral bankruptcy or its lack of credibility. It was a woefully inadequate response to the largest strategic and moral challenge of our time – the collapse of sovereignty at the heart of the Middle East, with radiating effects throughout the region, Europe and beyond. And this failure would not have been rectified by a few dozen guided missiles.

That’s what Trump has to learn:

Our current president will find that a Tomahawk missile is not the equivalent of a particularly nasty tweet. It is the conduct of war against a foreign power. And it demands a strategy of equal seriousness.

Don’t expect that. Mussolini made the trains run on time. That didn’t help him. In this case Trump did the right thing, but there is no one right thing, at just the right time, however impressive, that will make all the other buffoonery excusable. A stopped clock doesn’t tell the time. It doesn’t tell you anything.

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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