Life comes at you fast in the Trump administration. A day after warning Syria, Russia, and the world that missiles "will be coming," President Trump clarified Thursday that he didn't say when. "Could be very soon or not so soon at all!" And this was only a week after the president said he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria completely.
Amidst all this chaos, however, one thing remains a constant: Despite electing an "America First" president who has at least episodically expressed skepticism of foreign interventionism, it is awfully hard to press antiwar arguments in the Donald's Washington.
Arguments for restraint that would have gotten a fair hearing under President Obama, even after drawing red lines and half-heartedly threatening strikes in 2013, are treated less respectfully now. The antiwar left that existed under President Bush has been largely dormant under Trump.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was peppered with questions at a daily briefing this week about whether even talking about withdrawal encouraged the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons. "Has the president been briefed that his comments about wanting to leave Syria could have played a part — emboldened Assad and played a part in these attacks?" asked one reporter. "Didn't the president, by saying that he wants to get out of Syria, essentially give a green light to Assad to do this, as John McCain had suggested?" queried a second one.
McCain's assessments of Obama's Iraq troop withdrawals would have been quoted more skeptically.
Yet when Trump does use military force, he appears to receive the same "strange new respect" afforded other wartime presidents. Editorialists who inveigh against Trump as a reckless and irresponsible actor nevertheless want to see him engage in non-defensive military engagements without congressional approval. The Washington Post, for example, doesn't think Trump has done enough militarily in Syria.
I guess the revolving door executive branch should inspire confidence in his penchant for "regime change."
The ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Trump's persistent sketchiness about the same, also has many liberals clamoring for confrontations with Moscow. Syria is certainly one of many places where Russia is a bad actor. If Trump backs down from a confrontation with Russia in Syria, it is just more evidence of his malfeasance.
Trump himself contributes to all this. First he threatens a "big price" will be paid if Russia or Iran backs "Animal Assad." Then he blames the "Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation" for the problems with Vladimir Putin, in the same breath as the "Gas Killing Animal."
Portions of the pro-Trump media that might amplify the president's less interventionist instincts are susceptible to going too far, peddling conspiracy theories, alleging without evidence false flag operations, or even defending Assad's loathsome regime. This plays into the hands of those who want to treat every argument against Syria intervention as some kind of Russian propaganda or extremist victim-blaming, similar to the vicious cycle often evident in the run-up to the Iraq war.
The problem is that the decision to use force should be carefully debated rather than treated like Beltway ambient noise, even when the target is guilty of reprehensible conduct. Will the specific action being undertaken actually help resolve the underlying problems in Syria or will it merely help U.S. policymakers feel good about themselves while yielding more Syrian death and suffering? How long are we willing to wait out Russia and Iran? What are the national security implications for our own country?
All these questions become even more pressing in the aftermath of Iraq and Libya, where overthrowing horrible regimes nevertheless unleashed humanitarian disasters with little obvious national-security impact. We have continued to debate how long we should have kept troops in those countries because it was never obvious how regime change could lead to anything other than chaos in the absence of a lasting American military presence.
Why should we expect Syria to be any different? Have we learned anything from these conflicts other than the political benefits of minimizing U.S. "boots on the ground?"
That's a discussion that seems more productive than the latest Trump-Washington tit vs. tat, played out against the backdrop of the coming missiles.