Trump’s Syria strike was theater, and that’s the good news

Pretty lights in the sky over Damascus

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:

 

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

From CNN: The FBI seized audio recordings made by Michael Cohen

From CNN: Cohen has been under investigation by the DOJ for months

34 Comments

  1. Regarding Syria, check out Tom Friedman’s column in the NY Times from Apr 15.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/15/opinion/war-syria-iran-israel.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fopinion-columnists&action=click&contentCollection=columnists&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=10&pgtype=sectionfront

    Apparently, there is a lot more going on there between Israel and Iran using Syria as a “chess board”. As Friedman points out this could make the strike on Syria into what it really is – a mosquito buzzing.

  2. A hero of mine is in a coma, Maksim Borodin a Russian journalist was thrown from his apt balcony in Ykaterinburg. He reported on Russian paramilitary troops in Syria and published in Russian and Latvian news outlets and sometimes in western papers. He tracked underground Orthodox Christian groups who were attacking (enemies internal) in the Russian Federation. I am amazed at the bravery of these reporters living in the open knowing their every move is tracked and every contact a risk. We used to be brave once too.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/world/europe/maksim-borodin-journalist-dead-russia.html?module=WatchingPortal&region=c-column-middle-span-region&pgType=Homepage&action=click&mediaId=thumb_square&state=standard&contentPlacement=1&version=internal&contentCollection=www.nytimes.com&contentId=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2018%2F04%2F16%2Fworld%2Feurope%2Fmaksim-borodin-journalist-dead-russia.html&eventName=Watching-article-click

    1. That’s awful, Koctya! And, yes, being a reporter in a dangerous area is seldom appreciated by readers.

      I did just see this announcement by Trump which walks back Nikki Haley’s comments that more sanctions would be coming for Russia. The Russia links never seem to stop, do they?

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-puts-the-brake-on-new-russian-sanctions-reversing-haleys-announcement/2018/04/16/ac3ad4f8-417f-11e8-8569-26fda6b404c7_story.html?

  3. Here’s a very thoughtful analysis by Graham Fuller of America’s involvement in Syria. It’s complicated. Fuller poses some very basic questions:

    ” …does Washington truly seek an end to the war—a war that it cannot win? Or will it fight on in a losing, devastating situation in a country to which it was not invited, to seek “regime change” in yet another state with all the subsequent chaos, instability, and openings for the region’s most radical jihadi forces? ”

    More interesting is the final remark, which explains the involvement of Alan Dershowitz in advising Trump on Syrian engagement.

    ” does Washington truly seek an end to the war—a war that it cannot win? Or will it fight on in a losing, devastating situation in a country to which it was not invited, to seek “regime change” in yet another state with all the subsequent chaos, instability, and openings for the region’s most radical jihadi forces?

    “And are we ourselves to be manipulated as instruments for the achievement of local Israeli and Saudi strategic goals in the region? ”

    Things are not always about what is obvious to we mere mortals…nor as represented by leaders….Sometimes, the real reasons are deeper.

    http://grahamefuller.com/syria-bottom-line-questions/

    1. Graham Fuller’s arguments are very similar to those of Chalmers Johnson in his Empire Series, Bacevich and Khalidi and are very cynical. Fuller also refers to the neocons, with their desire for an American Empire. Bolton is very much one of the neocons and very possibly one of the strongest. I am fearful it basically represents the world outlook of Trump. He would prefer to see an American empire or at the very least a world in which America was a global hegemon.

      I prefer to think in terms of national vital interests, which is the approach that I took in my post, below. Regardless, of the approach taken, one can see why the U.S. does not take decisive action – the risks outweigh the potential gains.

      Committing major manpower and material resources to Syria and creating another major conflict there is not in our interests. The American people actually realize this. If the U.S. were to commit major forces, the electorate would very quickly rebel, as happened in Iraq.

      The other consideration is that there is no consensus regarding foreign policy in the U.S. at this time – we do not have any defined goals. We have a continuing conflict between the groups that want American hegemony and empire and those that want a less militaristic approach to foreign policy and one that emphasizes commercial activity and more emphasis on liberalism and human rights.

      All modern presidents have been caught in this conundrum. Obama was caught in this Catch-22, though he tilted towards the less militaristic approach. He realized he was caught and tried to craft a middle policy, that emphasized control of ISIS, but at the same time precluding major American military commitments. So far Trump appears to be taking a similar approach, despite his bluster and tweetocracy.

  4. The entire Syria situation is a conundrum from the geo-political viewpoint and for the U.S.

    The most important factor there is that the U.S. has few vital interests at stake in Syria and particularly Western Syria. However, in Eastern Syria and in regard to ISIS, we need to keep that group bottled up and to prevent its resurgence. Even that however does not present a situation that presents an existential threat. While the effects of Syrian instability affects the fossil fuel transport in Eurasia and potentially impacts the U.S., commercial methods will be more effective for the U.S., particularly with the U.S. becoming once again an oil swing state.

    On the other hand, for Russia, Iran and Turkey there are existential issues at stake in Syria. For Russia, the loss of a client state in Syria would result in the loss of its only outlet to the Mediterranean and warm waters. Also loss of Syria would probably result in Putin losing power and the refugee situation is useful in destabilizing Europe. Syria is essential to Iran’s thrust towards being a major regional power. For Turkey keeping Syria as a unified state is necessary to prevent formation of Kurdistan.

    If the U.S. was to undertake substantive action in Syria, there would be significant risk of a great power conflict with Russia and that could easily spiral out of control with China getting involved. Also a theatre could easily be opened in Europe. Thus we could have WWIII. Thus, the lack of vital interests and the risks mean the U.S. must be very careful of actions in Western Syria. The only issue that approaches significance is the taboo on the widespread use of chemical weapons.

    But the U.S. public and that of other western nations absolutely do not want another major conflict in the Middle East. That was made abundantly clear during the Obama Administration when both the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress refused to authorize military action when Assad previously used nerve gas.

    The net result is that the Syrian mess becomes an issue that is ripe for being politicized and that has happened. The Congressional Republicans did so. Trump did so during the campaign and he continues to do so with his use of it, to deflect attention from his collusion and corruption. Even though to Trump significant use of chemical weapons may personnally repugnant, he is not going to take significant military action because of the risks. Thus, we have the conundrum and the politicizing.

  5. I don’t know if others saw this but in addition to GRU being present at the Prague meeting the hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin was also there. He was picked up by Czech authorities and after 18 months extradited to the US where he sits while the case against him goes forward. Can a President pardon a foreign national? I’m really asking, I don’t know. If he talks to save himself some jail time he could really throw a wrench in Cohen/Trump campaign story that Cohen was never in Czech Republic….let alone about what was discussed at the meeting. The Russians held up extradition for 18 months and demanded his return. This guy could be safer in a US prison than loose in Moscow.

    https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/30/politics/yevgeniy-nikulin-linkedin-extradition/index.html

    1. For even more intrigue regarding Nikulin, read this litany of intelligent speculation by a very sharp blogger who runs “EmptyWheel” (https://www.emptywheel.net/). Note both Russia and the U.S. requested extradition of Nikulin, and the decision provoked intense conflict between the Pres of Czhekoslavakia and his Minister. Apparently extradition is still being sought for Nikulin by both countries from the U.S. which if granted, would presumably negate the need for a pardon….as the man would never return to U.S. soild for trial. In answer to your question, can a President pardon a foreign national? The second link states: “Under the Constitution, only federal criminal convictions, such as those adjudicated in the United States District Courts, may be pardoned by the President. ” The legal eagles here will have to interpret the statute or cite case law. Note also the reference to Paul Ryan’s trip to the Czhek Republic and his purported involvement in the extradition of Nikulin. As I stated, and as you noted, this is complicated.

      https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/04/14/how-yevgeniy-nikulin-might-play-into-the-mueller-investigation/

      https://www.justice.gov/pardon/pardon-information-and-instructions

      1. Thanks Mary,
        you gave me a new blog website to keep up with. A great site. As far as mis-spelling no worries..and its Czechia now. So, I was wrong with my reference to Czech Republic.

      2. The comments to the EmptyWheel posts are intriguing and well informed. In reading several posts, one commentator speculated upon Pence stepping into the presidency and that his likely VP would be Nikki Haley…I hadn’t considered that but it makes sense – from a Republican perspective.

      3. Insofar as administration choices that, comparatively speaking, have managed to avoid the Stain of Trump, Haley’s about as good a choice as could be made, though I have my doubts…

        1.) Our immediate post-Trump years are going to be the most politically unstable and chaotic that we’ve faced in a generation – and Nice Altar Boy Mike Pence, by every conceivable angle, is the worst choice to carry that burden on his shoulders; and, quite frankly, he just isn’t personally up to the task. Who’d want to throw themselves into the political fire of being VP in *that* no-win situation?

        2.) Whatever your views of her policies, Nikki Haley still has a future in politics if she chooses not to light it on fire. If (let’s be real, when) the Trump Train goes off the rails, Republican politics at the highest level is going to be an unrestrained shitshow. Haley should serve out her time as Ambassador and use her clout to be a mediating force for reform, keeping as relatively low a profile as she can while the damage sorts itself out.

  6. Every day, it just seems more pointless to comment on the obvious.

    This is simply one fascist regime dancing with another, and I don’t mean Russia and Syria. Chris is right about the collusion, and no one seems willing to say that the unites states is now a fascist regime, with no rule of law.

    If anyone here still thinks that Mueller will slow down the puppet tyrant, sorry, not going to happen. We all know when he gets too close, he will be fired, and the puppet tyrant will pardon anyone on the federal charges (I recognize state charges against the lawyer are coming).

    Only way to stop this regime is bullets and bombs. But that won’t happen either. I read that a whopping 300,000 might take to the streets when Mueller is fired. That is 0.1% of the population. More people are in jail over pot possession than that. I know I won’t be taking to the streets in any protest, where I can be arrested and processed as a terrorist . That is also coming.

    Now, if 3 million marched on Washington, all heavily armed, then I would say we have something. But people are still more interested in their Intsagram and Facebook accounts than reality.

    1. I think it’s a bit premature to declare that we’ve lost. I agree with you that Trump will (at least attempt to) fire Mueller, but Congress is still a wild card. Trump has not had a good working relationship with Congress, and his unpopularity is feeding a blue wave that looks to cost a lot of Republicans their jobs. I have a suspicion that many Republicans are willing to turn on Trump if they can find some political cover for it.

      Here’s an article from just this past week that may confirm my suspicions, if this guy’s opinions are common:
      https://www.themaven.net/theresurgent/erick-erickson/a-congressman-s-profanity-laced-tirade-in-a-safeway-grocery-store-SeHI2l5bIECGQn4gmnzGaw/?full=1

      1. Yes Mary, that article by Margaret Sullivan encapsulates what I have been saying for months. The rule of law is dead. Murdoch and crew are Goebbels. This has happened in history so many times, in so many monstrous regimes. This time is really no different.

        Orwell nailed it.

    2. EJ

      During Obama’s term as President, there were several marches of large numbers of armed people to Washington. They were ignored, and they meekly went away afterwards. Facebook is arguably more real than that; at least it actually gets debated in Congress.

      I’d argue that Trump will not attempt to stay on past his term. It’s not in his character to do so: when we look at his business history we can see a repeated pattern of him walking away from organisations once he’s led them to disaster. He’ll steal as much as he can and then move on.

      The aftermath might be worse.

      When East Germany collapsed, one of the saddest things was seeing the faces of those who had genuinely believed the propaganda and bought into the lies, suddenly realising that it was false all along. Many of them turned to drink or drugs; others found solace in extremist politics. Some talked about rising up militarily. A lot of people just grew resentful. Even now, the less sensible political parties on both sides of the spectrum tend to do much better in the former Eastern states.

      Fortunately, the newly-reunited Germany was willing to spend enormous sums of federal money on reeducating and reintegrating people, and to dismantle the cultural structures of the East so that they could be replaced with better ones. That helped a great deal. I hope that the American Republic can do the same.

      1. One wonders what the world might look like if the world undertook a similar “Marshall Plan” style tactic with Russia once the USSR collapsed to help integrate it into the world’s capitalist structure as opposed to leaving it on its own to fall into the oligarchic kleptocracy that it is now.

      2. I remember some prognosticators, primarily in Foreign Affairs Magazine, discussing just that. However, conservatives were in charge at the time and with their aversion towards “foreign aid” and their concept that pure unfettered capitalism is perfect, there was absolutely no chance of a “Marshall Plan” for Russia being implemented. Rather we got the “shock therapy” approach that led to the current “oligarchic kleptocracy”.

        Even though the D’s controlled the Congress, George HW Bush was President and the Congress was relatively conservative.

    1. Here’s an article that parallels the message in the Guardian piece but offers a bit more cynicism from journalists who cover this area. ““According to the cowardly statements and the weak strike by the West, Assad is allowed to use all kinds of weapons to kill us except chemicals,” tweeted Syrian opposition journalist Hadi Abdallah. “The international community has set him free as a monster to annihilate the Syrian people.”

      I have read many comments that noted Trump’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees into America even as he acknowledges the dangers they face by staying there.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/damascus-defiant-as-trump-orders-strikes-after-syria-chemical-attack/2018/04/14/5ec055a6-3f5c-11e8-955b-7d2e19b79966_story.html?

  7. Distraction works two ways. It affords Mueller a little more time to complete his reports and tie up loose ends (Cohen’s purported trip to Prague?). I doubt it deters Trump from pursuing his obstruction of justice activities for long (relative to firing Rosenstein and potentially Mueller later), but it gives the world time to “breathe.” This presidency is exhausting for its chaos. As for Devin Nunes, this despicable man is back on the job as Trump’s inside contact to demand through subpoenas, work that is being done through the FBI and DOJ.

    It’s good to see an accurately cynical assessment of just what this attack was designed to do: distract attention from the Mueller Investigation and to boost Trump’s polling numbers (the first missile attack scored his highest poll rating ever – 43). More important, in my opinion, is that it kept Trump busy feeling important which is likely worth more to staff than an Eagle putt. Thank god for James Mattis for containing the attack while newly appointed National Security Advisor John Bolton called for “massive” damage. If playing soldier assuages Trump’s ego, maybe that is better than having him dabble in less injurious matters – a lesson I am certain his staff know very well. It doesn’t do much for the U.S. Treasury but that hasn’t been a real concern for Republicans for quite some time.

    It is amusing that Trump announced with bravado (and without notifying or consulting key staff or allies) that he was going to rain missiles down on Syria….within 24-48 hours…which, of course, didn’t happen, by design or restraint from Mattis, and gave Assad and Putin plenty of notice to move valuable assets out of harm’s way….It’s no wonder they said “meh.” Let Trump have his fun and games – they have him cornered in every other critical area.

    I didn’t watch the Brian Williams Show during the strike but I did watch Rachel Maddow’s program two hours earlier. She was not so sanguine about what the real purpose of the effort was….eyes wide open kind of response. Frankly, I’m happy no one was hurt (on either side?) but becoming hopelessly cynical about our $900B Defense program.

    Reuters just announced: “The United Nations Security Council failed to adopted a Russian-drafted resolution on Saturday that would have condemned “the aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic by the U.S. and its allies in violation of international law and the U.N. Charter.”
    Only Russia, China and Bolivia voted in favor of the draft resolution. Eight countries voted against the draft, while four abstained. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, France, Britain or the United States to pass. ”

    Note that China supported Russia….a deep chess move that shows Trump they have more options than a trade war.

    1. Assuming that Mueller can indeed prove that Cohen was in Prague, and if (still a BIG “if,” tbs) he can decisively prove that he was meeting with Russians and hackers, that’s your collusion case right there – a direct line to connect the Trump Campaign and the Kremlin. If that’s how this goes down, we’re about to see some Donkey Kong level shit about to hit the fan in a serious way.

      Obstruction of justice has been baked in the cake ever since Trump fired Comey, far as I’m concerned. It’s just been a matter of Mueller and his team putting the case and tying it together with a neat little bow to present to the public and potential prosecution.

      All that said, does anyone here believe that Mueller would go the extraordinary step of actually moving to indict a sitting “president” or might he simply be willing to leave it up to a Congress that he has to know wouldn’t act on it?

      1. That is the big question – can a sitting U.S. president be constitutionally indicted? It ultimately becomes a political issue. As far as impeachment, we know that the present House will not impeach. If the D’s take control in 2019, they very likely will impeach. However, I still see very little likelihood that the Senate will convict. It is mathematically impossible at present for the D’s to achieve a 2/3 majority in the Senate in the 2018 elections.

      2. While you’re right that Dems aren’t going to have the numbers to convict Trump on their own (even if they swept every conceivably competitive race in the entire country), the political pressure brought to bear on Republicans may well come from our most unreliable voters of all, young people.

        https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/10/politics/young-americans-midterm-elections-poll/index.html?CNNPolitics=Tw

        And yes, this is teetering on the edge of self-defeating optimism, but the truth is is that Republicans’ confidence in winning doesn’t come from gerrymandering or voter ID – but rather that Democrats most overwhelming constituency just doesn’t vote. If Millennials voted their numbers, Dems would sweep the country every damn time.

        Republicans realize better than anyone the demographic time bomb that’s just waiting to go off, and if that happens this November, could the prospect of political annihilation be enough to twist just enough Republicans’ arms to trump Trump out of office? I’d argue the possibility isn’t zero.

      3. Cohen is no doubt very deeply involved with the Russian connection to Trump. Maybe Cohen will flip, then Trump will be in big trouble. I’ve read some speculation that Cohen is getting ready to do a ‘cover his A..’ maneuver.

        Regarding millennials voting, I really hope that does happen. That would make a big difference. Some of the young people in our family are definitely politically active. Whether my granddaughter who just turned 18 votes are not, I do not know. I know she and her parents think along the same lines I and my partner do, but they are not as politically active as we are. Besides Seattle is so liberal that the R’s hardly bother to even field candidates.

        As a Vietnam vet, who was active in the anti-war movement, I am somewhat cynical that they will actually vote. I know in 68, 70 and 72, despite the good intentions, the turnout by the boomers was disappointing. In 68, many of the boomers stayed home, rather than voting for Humphrey and as a result we got Nixon. Humphrey would have ended the war. Nixon prolonged it. More Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon’s Administration than prior to him taking office. Personally, I voted for Humphrey. I already knew what Nixon was and I was 23 at the time.

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