Here’s what we learned from the airstrikes yesterday on Syria. The Trump administration is willing to use American military power as a distraction from bad news, with no policy objectives or military purpose. In the most upsetting irony of all, this kind of war porn may be less dangerous than military actions we’d expect from a competent President.
Trump has done this before. On April 4, 2017, the Assad regime launched a chemical attack on civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun. The Trump administration’s response was initially muted. Since his inauguration Trump had been ceding the initiative in Syria to the Russians and had abandoned any pretense of opposition to Assad. There was no TrumpTweet in response to the attack. The administration would have preferred to let the matter fade. Then something happened.
On April 5, Rep. Devin Nunes was called into Paul Ryan’s office to get some bad news. Nunes had been leading the House’s Russia probe. He had also been sharing classified information with the White House to assist their efforts to influence the investigation. The next morning Nunes would be forced to recuse himself. Suddenly, the media distraction of a theatrical strike in Syria was looking attractive.
Late on April 6th, the US launched a missile strike on a Syrian airfield at Shayrat. There were no casualties, as the Syrians had been warned of the precise details of strike by their Russian allies. Damage was so minimal that Syrian forces were able to launch fresh airstrikes from the base the next day. The Shayrat strike was a fireworks show staged for a US domestic audience, but that’s not the message Americans heard.
Paul Ryan trumpeted the administration’s “decisive” action against Assad. Though footage of the strike was limited and entirely uninformative, it displaced all coverage of the Russia investigation for almost two days. Even on MSNBC, which was already devolving into the Trump/Russia channel, the temptation to sell war porn was too much to resist. There’s a voyeuristic unease in watching Brian Williams climax to footage of a Tomahawk missile launch:
Brian Williams refers to this Pentagon video of missiles going to kill people as “beautiful” 3 times in 30 seconds pic.twitter.com/KBb3tP8qHT
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) April 7, 2017
Yesterday the Trump administration did it again. They staged a military exercise in Syria to distract the public from developments in the Russia investigation. Again, Syrian forces were warned ahead of time and the strike had no strategic or tactical purpose. And again, the performance displaced all other coverage at a critical moment. Here’s what the Washington Post’s homepage looks like at present, April 14th:
Even the Post is repeating administration talking points about the “destruction” of key assets. These assets were apparently so “key” that on the same front page we learn the Russians and Syrians declined to defend them. Miraculously, strikes on three military installations using more than 100 missiles produced no military casualties on either side. How does one accomplish such martial magic? Collusion. In an interesting twist, the collusion that allowed the Americans to pick a meaningless target and gave the Russians and Syrians time to get out of the way was reported (obliquely) by one of our own generals. From the Washington Post’s reporting on the strike:
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the only communications that took place between the United States and Russia before the operation were “the normal deconfliction of the airspace, the procedures that are in place for all of our operations in Syria.”
Deconfliction. Words are beautiful, capable of delivering truth and deception in the same package. In simpler terms, our “enemy” helped us pick a target and we gave them time to prepare the stage for our performance. Deconfliction – the removal of conflict. We launched a faux attack in which any element of conflict had been removed by collusion with our supposed enemy.
This isn’t the first time a president has used the military to rip bad news off the headlines, but when Clinton did this 20 years ago there was at least a genuine target and real military objectives. In a theater of operations that has been deconflicted by collusion with the enemy, what is the purpose of the US military? How many of our brave soldiers deployed in the region grew up dreaming that one day they could become a tool of a corrupt president?
Trump’s abuse of our military is disgusting, but it would be a mistake to focus entirely on him. Across half a century of creeping militarism, we’ve abandoned any sense of responsibility for what our military does in other countries. A volunteer army in a world at peace has freed us from any stake in military outcomes. We watch these spectacles the way we watch a football game or a movie. We’ve grown comfortable with permanent war, waged by paid volunteers, with no clear, material connection to US security interests. Barriers preventing a president from treating our soldiers as game-pieces have fallen. Nothing stops a president from using our military – our kids, siblings or parents – as his personal Global Super-Adventure Squad, available to carry out exciting missions on his whim. A President Clinton or Rubio might have wielded this capability with more discretion and more strategic intent, but they still shouldn’t possess that unchecked power.
Our treatment of our military is a problem bigger than Donald Trump. Here’s the sickening irony of this disgusting episode: Trump’s phony raid may be less dangerous to American interests than real campaigns that might have been launched by a competent President.
Epilogue: Here’s what was really happening while fireworks lit up Damascus:
From the McClatchy: More evidence corroborates the Steele Dossier