Saturday, April 8, 2017

What does Trump's bombing Syria mean?

My late night blog writing expressed general approval of Trump's decision to launch Tomahawk missiles in a strike on the Syrian air base from which Assad launched his devastating poison gas attack on his own civilians.   I especially was gratified to see that the Trump national defense team seemed to be ready and that it followed the regular process, with the appropriate people in the right places, in analyzing the problem and formulating options for the president's final decision.

That is not to say that I have become a war hawk nor a Trump supporter -- far from it.  I'm just relieved that he is more or less following regular order, rather than ordering an attack without even consulting his defense team.

Honestly, I hope that is the last bomb we drop on Syria.  I don't want to see U.S. ground troops in Syria.   I hope that the airstrike will be taken as the message I believe it was intended to send, both to Assad and to Putin, and that this will lead further to a negotiated, diplomatic solution to the Syrian calamity.

But I have causes for concern even within this general approval.   One is the rapid shift in Trump's position and what that means.  This is a 180 degree change in U.S. policy against becoming militarily involved in Syria.

Trump has previously opposed the U.S. emphasizing human rights in our negotiations with other nations, whether it be geopolitical or trade.   Just days before, he heaped praise on his White House guest, strongman and military dictator of Egypt, Gen. el Sisi -- "We agree on so many things. . . . I just want to let everybody know in case there was any doubt that we are very much behind President el-Sisi.  He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation."

El-Sisi seized power in a coup from a democratically elected president, had himself elected in a fixed election where he won 96% of the vote;  had over 1,000 protesters killed in the streets, holds 50,000 political prisoners, and has decimated press freedom and human rights in Egypt.

What changed Trump's mind from previously only considering the transactional value of a position?  In his press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Trump commented on the videos showing the horrible suffering of the civilians, especially the children, who were victims of the Syrian dictator's chemical attack.    He was obviously emotionally shaken.  He spoke of a line being crossed and said, "My attitude toward Assad and Syria has changed . . . very much."

A pattern is  emerging, and I am beginning to think that Donald Trump may have a heart after all -- if you can only penetrate the rhino-skin-thick defense he has and put him in contact with people in need, sometimes he gets it.  I don't want to over-state what may be only a glimmer, but I think those photographs touched him in a new way that got through;  and he decided in that moment to act.  Fortunately, his instinct to act was tempered and shaped by the analytic and planning process of his defense team, who then presented him with options.

Even if it is only a glimmer, it's on the same side of the balance-scales as the demotion of Bannon's influence.   This action, in effect a defiance of Putin, also suggests that he is not so beholden -- or so besmitten -- that he is unable to take an opposing stand.   This action moves him away from Bannon's nationalistic America-First sentiments and speaks more to a globalist perspective.

So, let's see what comes next.   There are other problems in this airstrike.   Is it legal in U.S. law?   In international law?  [It does violate the 2013 agreement Assad made with us and Russia when they supposedly turned over all their chemical weapons for disposal by Russia.]  Will congress authorize it?   What happens next in Syria?   What is our long range plan, or is there one at all?  Will we send in large numbers of troops?   Will we get involved in regime change and nation-rebuilding?   We have hundreds of adviser-troops in Syria;  will this put them in danger of retaliation?  And what about all the children and babies of the Syrian refugees that Trump has barred from seeking a home in our country?   Aren't they worth helping?

Superficial to those questions are ones about Trump's motivations.   Was this just an impulsive, emotional response to horrific visual images?   Was there any strategic  analysis, or was it perhaps for political reasons?   Did the fact that the leader of China was there at Mar-a Lago, where all this was going on behind closed doors, have anything to do with the decision?   Was Trump showing off for President Xi, making a power statement about his willingness to use force in front of the other superpower in the world today?

What I feel positive about:   (1)  Trump has shown that he is not totally immune to having a human reaction, that he does have some capacity for compassion for human suffering and can be moved by it and even let it guide his presidential decisions.    (2)  He seems gradually to be peeling off the worst influences on his team (Flynn is gone;  Bannon may be on the way out.)

But do I feel positive about Trump's improving?   Don't we want him to just get worse so we can get him out of there?   Now there's a dilemma.


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