The bombing was for domestic consumption. According to 1The New York Times, “The Pentagon informed Russian military officials, through its established deconfliction channel, of the strike before the launching of the missiles, the official said, with American officials knowing when they did that Russian authorities may well have alerted the Assad regime.” In other words, the object of Trump’s Tomahawks was not Syria’s capacity to deploy gas, but domestic liberal opponents who base their resistance to Trump entirely on the premise that he is anti-American because he is too close to Putin, and that he is a traitor to a bipartisan policy of humanitarian military interventionism. He bombs, drones, and kills, but he doesn’t do it, as his predecessors did, in the name of humanity. Until yesterday.
2 Trump hit his targets, and the resistance—at least, composed of an alliance with liberal hawks baying for a new war and criticizing Trump for not giving it them—has been gravely damaged. Early reports indicated that most of the Democratic leadership has announced that it supports his actions. New York Senator Charles Schumer said it is “the right thing to do.” John McCain and Lindsey Graham, held up by the press as Trump’s main Republican critics, jointly said: “Building on tonight’s credible first step, we must finally learn the lessons of history and ensure that tactical success leads to strategic progress.” Adam Schiff, ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee and a #resistance darling, went on MSNBC to say he supported the bombing and that he would press Congress to authorize more of it. With the sole exception of Chris Hayes, MSNBC turned into something like a Patriots Day Parade, with one guest after another crediting Trump for his decisiveness. Needless to say, CNN is worse. Josh Rogin of The Washington Post reminded his Twitter followers that Trump’s bombing brings him into the mainstream: “Former senior U.S. intelligence official: This is almost exactly the strike plan Obama readied in 2013.” Indeed, just the day before, Hillary Clinton had called on Trump to “take out” Assad’s air force. NYT columnist Nick Kristof said Trump “did the right thing.” A “proportional response,” Nancy Pelosi said.
3 The bombing reveals that there are no limits to the media’s ability to be awed, if not shocked, by manufactured displays of techno-omnipotence. Just as it did in the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon passed footage of its nighttime missile launches to the networks. And just as what happened then—when, CBS’s Charles Osgood called the bombing of Iraq “a marvel” and Jim Stewart described it as “two days of almost picture-perfect assaults”—today MSNBC’s Brian Williams called the Tomahawk takeoff “beautiful.” In fact, he described it as “beautiful” three times: “‘They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield,’ he added, then asked his guest, ‘What did they hit?’” Why, don’t you know, they hit their target: Williams and his colleagues’ ability to have a critical thought.
4 All criticism from the Democratic leadership has been framed in terms of procedure, focused on the fact that Trump didn’t get congressional approval. Schumer, Schiff, and the rest of them have all pronounced thusly, promising to bring the matter to Congress. This is exactly the kind of danger I warned about here, comparing Democrats’ opposition to Trump—and particularly their obsession with Russia—to Iran/Contra. That was a crime that should have handed the keys to all three branches of government to the Democrats. Instead, by accepting the premises of Reagan’s objectives but dissenting over how he achieved them, Democrats blew it then, just as they blew it in 2004 when John Kerry ran for president criticizing how the war in Iraq was being waged but accepting the justifications for why it was being waged. And they are going to blow it now. In fact, the only senator, as far as I know, who criticized the bombing itself, and not the way it was carried out, was Rand Paul: “While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked.… Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer, and Syria will be no different.”
5 Coming back to the first point, Russia was alerted beforehand of the bombing, thus limiting the danger of escalation. If this was the case, it raises the question of just how committed Putin is to defending Assad, and of whether Trump might just be able to have his cake and eat it too. That is, he might be able to win the trifecta: distance himself from the slur of “isolationism,” placate the interventionists, and keep his budding alliance with Russia. A jump in oil prices as a result of the bombing will make Russia and Tillerson happy. And perhaps this is all a test run for the real game: figuring out a way to drive a wedge between Iran and Russia. Then Trump can have Moscow and McCain and Schumer can have Iran.
6 Finally, Washington’s use of the “established deconfliction channel” to warn Moscow that it was readying its missiles might have, for now, reduced the risk of escalation. But the risk is still substantial. That the bombing came on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I underscores the oft-made point that war is unpredictable. If Trump doesn’t get what he wants from these bombs, if his domestic numbers don’t go up, or if Assad’s behavior still remains unchecked, what will he do? As I argued here, we are in uncharted territory: Never before has foreign policy—including war and the threat of war—been as completely driven by domestic polarization as it is now. Not even in the 1960s was the US governing establishment as fractured as it is today, with Trump both a symptom and an accelerant of that fracture.
Fifty years ago, the Mexican critic Octavio Paz described the United States as a “giant which is walking faster and faster along a thinner and thinner line.” Today, that line is about gone, and we teeter like never before over the abyss.