Trump's Syria 'success' is fool's gold

Why the president will consider his strike on Syria a success — even though it will accomplish nothing

President Trump.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After he decided to launch missiles at a Syrian military base, President Trump had a serious concern. "He asked about reaction from the world community as well as congressional leaders," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told the press the next day, "and was informed that there was fairly unanimous praise for the decision and the actions the president took." Spicer later added that foreign leaders "almost universally" praised "the president's decisive action," then returned to the point to note that the strike "has been widely praised throughout the globe."

Never have we seen a president who so craved praise and validation. And on this occasion, he's getting it. Which is why no matter what happens, President Trump will believe that his first major military decision was an absolutely yuge success.

There are many reasons why Trump will feel like he just showed himself to be a fantastic, top-notch president. The first is that presidents tend to get an uptick in the polls when they initiate any military action, and he could sure use it, since in many polls his approval ratings are in the 30s. Trump understands this dynamic well; in 2012 he tweeted, "Now that Obama's poll numbers are in tailspin — watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate." If and when Trump gets a bump, no matter how small, expect him to tell everyone how his poll numbers are skyrocketing (after he tells you how great he did in the Electoral College).

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Second, launching some missiles will make Trump feel strong, and we know how important it is for him to feel strong. It's practically an obsession, and why he always derides his opponents as weak and small — he needs to feel that he's the alpha male, and no matter what he said about not getting the United States pulled into quagmires overseas, there was simply no way he'd pass up an opportunity to make things go boom.

Third, Trump will be satisfied that he has distinguished himself from Barack Obama. Nevermind that when Obama faced a similar decision — how to respond to a chemical weapons attack by Bashar al-Assad — Trump urged him not to undertake any kind of military action, even putting it in all caps: "AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!" What matters now is that Trump can say he's being strong where Obama was weak, and the world will fear us again.

Fourth, Trump is getting statements of support from hawks on both sides of the aisle. Not just the ones you'd expect, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, but even from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. There have been an extraordinary number of flip-flops from Republicans who in 2013 criticized Obama for seeking congressional authority to conduct strikes on Syria, yet are now gushing with praise for Trump, but that's okay with him, as long as they ended up in the right place. Combine that with the support of allies overseas, and Trump will be more than convinced that everyone everywhere is lauding his brilliant leadership, except for a few haters and losers.

But nothing is more important to this president than getting praised in the media, and he's getting that in spades. It's coming not just from conservatives but even from some putative liberals, like CNN's Fareed Zakaria, who said, "I think Donald Trump became president of the United States" in the wake of the bombing, leaving viewers to wonder just how many times he can be declared to have become president.

It's almost impossible to overstate how much the media, and television in particular, love military action. It isn't ideological or even substantive in any way, it's about what makes good TV. War is dramatic, kinetic, exciting, and compelling. They've known this ever since the first Gulf War in 1990, which turned CNN into a cable destination, and there's no story that gets their juices pumping faster. On cable news they re-ran the footage of Tomahawk missiles launching from the deck of a ship over and over again, on a near endless loop testifying to America's awesome power and potency.

And you can bet that Trump will be tuning in and drinking it all in — especially on Fox, where they've been absolutely beside themselves. "He took swift, decisive action and it made Americans proud. I think it made people all around the world proud," said Trump favorite Jeanine Pirro. "As the media shift to war footing, the tone of the coverage has dramatically changed, from whether Trump is a bumbling leader to how decisive he was in responding to Bashir al-Assad's horrifying chemical attack," wrote Fox media analyst Howard Kurtz.

So Trump is no doubt reveling in how successful he is and what a great decision it was to launch those missiles. But before long, people may start to ask: What did it actually accomplish? It did nothing for Assad's victims; after all, he has killed around half a million civilians with conventional weapons, so they're no safer if this attack convinces him not to use chemical weapons again. It didn't bring an end to the Syrian civil war any closer. Every recent president has used this kind of a strike as a way of looking like you're doing something (at no risk to American personnel) without actually doing much of anything.

But that's a concern for another day. For now, President Trump surely couldn't be more pleased with himself. After all, he's getting what he most wants.

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