If you want American media talking heads, liberal or conservative, to hyperventilate for your presidency, it appears you just need to blow something up, preferably somewhere in the Arab world. Suddenly, you become “presidential” and every misfire, error and mistake is forgotten.
There is little doubt that Syrian President Bashar Assad is a butcher and his regime needs to go. So, on the surface, US President Donald Trump’s order to bomb a Syrian airbase looks like a winner for him. It does not take much digging, however, to find the cracks in its foundation.
Until April 6, the day of the cruise missile strike, the Trump administration’s policy, if you can call it that, was totally hands off Syria. Trump was not interested in replacing Assad and there had been no expression of horror at the almost half a million Syrians who had been killed in the preceding years, including the “beautiful babies” who had died in horrible bombings or who had drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to escape Assad.
In the past, Trump had suggested that he believed many Syrian refugees were terrorists. While it is interesting to think that Trump was suddenly overwhelmed by a surge of humanitarianism, he has not changed his position on his Muslim ban that includes Syrian refugees, many of whom live in abysmal conditions. It is hard to see his concern as more than a hiccup in his emotional state. This was obvious in the inability of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to explain the contradiction in Trump’s position on US political talk shows.
Policy, what policy? We live in a complicated world. Leaders of superpowers — and the United States happens to be the only one — need a plan for how to deal with those complicated matters.
It is a somewhat disturbing idea that Trump will jettison whatever policies he does have every time he sees upsetting images on the White House TV. Did he think about how Russia would respond? Or Turkey or Egypt? Will one attack lead to more? The Syrians already have the airbase back in operation. Will he bomb it again to ensure it is not used again for a similar kind of attack?
It is hard to see any master policy design behind the attack, even with the sudden appearance of Rex Tillerson as the secretary of state.
In a different vein, but just as concerning, the US media’s reactions were problematic for America and the rest of the world. In times of conflict, US editors and reporters grow epaulettes. Almost across the board, the usual suspects on cable news TV fell over themselves to applaud Trump’s decision to bomb. Suddenly, airtime was filled with former generals talking about “strategy”.
It was déjà vu all over again. It was as if the American media had learned nothing from the long nightmare of their miscalculations and errors about the 2003 Gulf war and its aftermath. This attack raised more questions than solved them but the media were too busy being fanboys to dig deeper. (Jake Tapper of CNN was the only real exception.)
Years ago, a senior foreign editor at a national radio station where I worked told me to be careful of inside-the-Beltway journalists. “They are just a pack of lemmings attracted by bright shiny things,” he said of the media in Washington. He was right.
Tom Regan, a columnist at factsandopinion.com, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.
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