Wagging the Dog?
Forgive me (or don’t) for sounding like a cynical old man when I ask, “Would Donald Trump have launched a missile attack on a Syrian air base if his ‘favorables’ at home were 65 percent instead of 35 percent?”
Rule Number One in every head-of-state’s handbook is, when you’re in big trouble at home, launch a foreign military engagement to divert attention and show you are one tough leader. (Remember Grenada?) Sometimes known as “wagging the dog,”(after a satirical movie), it’s almost always worth a 5- or 10-point rise in favorability. I expect we’ll soon see such a lift for Trump– maybe by the time you read this.
The missile strike was a head-spinning reversal of Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy, which was being spelled out daily, up to the moment of the raid, by his own tweets and comments by his invisible Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
To speak of “policy” in Trump’s regime , of course, is to find solidity in silly putty.
Okay. Now let’s look at the other side. We know Trump responds emotionally and rapidly, especially to criticism of himself or his family, but also to TV images, which is the case in the toxic chemical attack against Syrian civilians–especially babies. The footage is indeed horrifying and enough to make anyone want to lash out against the perpetrator. Emotionally moved, he did, after requesting various military options. The missile attack was seen as the safest.
But one must also ask, why hasn’t Trump been similarly repelled since his election by Assad’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians–adults and babies–by dropping barrel bombs, other ordnance and likely even other chemical weapons? Is being torn apart by barrel-bomb shrapnel any less horrifying than death by poison gas? Ho hum. Maybe he was tuned to a different channel or too busy tweeting to notice.
Was the missile attack legal? Since it was not authorized by Congress or the UN and was not a response to an immediate threat, the answer would be no. But his administration–like Obama’s and others before them–always has available some legal contortionists who find one or another loophole to justify such a violation.
The change in policy–if that’s what it is–seems to be a victory for National Security Advisor H.R.McMaster over rival Steve Bannon in the internal White House warfare. Bannon, you will recall, at McMaster’s insistence was removed from his seat on the National Security Council–a seat he never should have held. Last week I suggested McMaster might be on the verge of quitting. I suspect he put it forcefully to Trump: either Bannon leaves the council or I go. Trump made a rare correct decision.
There also is now open warfare pitting President-in-Law Jared Kushner and financial advisor Gary Cohn against Bannon. Bannon calls them the “Democrats.” Both are Jewish, which might play into the hostility, considering Bannon’s Breitbart association.
So now we have two battlefields–the Oval Office and Syria. Both are splintered, undecipherable and unwinnable at this point.
Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer