The Best Way to Appear Presidential? Go to War

Courtesy of US Navy/ Handout

The United States government notified the Russians of the impending attack in Syria last night, and ABC News is reporting that all equipment was removed and all personnel had evacuated before the strikes began.  Russia is an ally of Syria, so the logic here isn’t difficult to follow.  By letting Russia know about the strikes, we were essentially letting Syria know about the strikes, which begs the question: what was the point of this?

It was largely a theatrical gesture, and potentially a warning shot of sorts.That is not to say that it was not an act of war, it absolutely was, and it very well may escalate, but it was more symbolic than devastating. President Trump wanted to show that he isn’t afraid of unilaterally ordering a military strike when the situation presents itself.  He wanted to stand at a podium as the commander in chief, in the mold of the perceived strong, fearless, declarative statesmen that preceded him.  Perhaps those horrifying videos of children foaming at the mouth and choking to death in the streets of Idlib really did impact the president and spur his actions, it’s not impossible, but it would surely be inconsistent.  This is far from the first report of children being murdered by the Assad regime, and Trump’s prior reaction wasn’t one of compassion, but of cruelty.  His twice-defeated travel ban aimed to halt all immigration from Syria for a minimum of 90 days and he continually warned against U.S. intervention:

Let’s set aside the fact that our recent interventions into complex Middle East conflicts (Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) have resulted in generating more death and chaos. Let’s focus on the political benefits of this action.  War is a unifying enterprise. It elicits extreme emotions, words like justice, freedom and liberty are always in the mix regardless of their accuracy.  In the U.S., most of the bombs we drop and the missiles we launch are far away, they land in spaces we’ve never seen, killing civilians who are rarely represented by anything beyond numbers.  Quite often, the numbers aren’t even reported.  Sans the servicemen and women who are risking their lives, many Americans are not viscerally connected to the majority of our military actions.  They see coverage on the news, but there’s always a screen providing separation.  The American public sits back and watches pundits and anchors worshiping at the alter of the American war machine, describing missiles in flight like they are fucking Renoir paintings.

Brian Williams, what is wrong with you?

There may be nothing the nightly news likes more than a fresh military conflict to boost ratings, but it would behove Mr.Williams to keep his poetic enthusiasm at bay since, you know, people die and all.  Even though much of the American populace may not feel directly connected to a military attack, it’s still war, and war is the most powerful rallying cry we have.

Some recent examples: President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating was a record-high 89% following the Gulf War, and his son, George W. Bush’s approval rating was at 71% right after we went into Iraq. The boost, however, as we saw with both of these men, is often temporary. 

 This decision also has the added benefit of turning down the volume of the Russia investigation for a time and shifting the media focus to predictable conversations on how traditionally presidential Trump has become over the past 24 hours.

Political panelists on the left and the right are once again claiming that this was the moment Trump became President.  It’s unconscious, correlative thinking at its most obscene: presidents order military strikes, Donald Trump just ordered a military strike, so therefore, Donald Trump must now be presidential—whatever that means.  The other time Trump “became president” was during his address to congress, following the standing ovation for Carryn Owens, the widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens who was killed during a raid in Yemen.  Both of these instances were centered around war, that is not a coincidence.  If there is one thing that has historically hopped aisles and bridged ideological gaps in America, it’s war.  Destruction brings us together.

Many democrats including leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer approve of Trump’s plans and a number of republicans who voted against military intervention in Syria under Obama are now embracing it.

One notable GOP standout is Rand Paul, who is sticking to his anti-interventionist roots:

The United States has been in a perpetual state of war for decades, it’s become our default setting, it’s what the public responds to, it’s a big draw.  We won’t know for some time whether or not these strikes will be successful in halting future chemical attacks and stabilizing the region, but there are certainly reasons for skepticism.

Regardless of where this move takes us, expect an approval rating boost for President Trump.

There’s nothing more broadly presidential than a war order.

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