Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
At the end of William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, part 2, the dying King Henry IV — who took power by staging a palace coup against his cousin, Richard II, and spent virtually the whole of his reign fighting back against attempts to get rid of him and put Richard’s designated heir on the throne — summons his son and heir, Prince Hal, to his deathbed for some last-minute advice. Among the things Henry IV tells his son to do as king is “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” — that is, to stop the revolutions and reunite the country by aiming its military at another country. And he doesn’t need to tell his son what the other country should be: France, which England had been trying to conquer since the reign of Henry IV’s grandfather, Edward III, over 50 years earlier.
Not that the new King Henry V’s military adventure in France went well. Like U.S. President George W. Bush’s military in Iraq almost seven centuries later, Henry’s forces won a few quick victories, including a major one at the Battle of Agincourt that essentially led Henry V to declare, like Bush, “Mission Accomplished.” Then Henry V died, leaving a two-year-old son as his heir and a lot of feuding nobles in his court who fought over which one would get to rule until the baby prince was old enough to do so himself. The English army in France got bogged down in a long war of occupation against a native resistance led by a woman named Joan of Arc, and not only were they driven out of France, within two decades England was bogged down in a bloody civil war, the Wars of the Roses, and France had recovered enough that both sides in the English civil war sought French help.
But at least temporarily, Henry V was able to unite his country behind his rule by following his dad’s advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” And, at least so far, so has U.S. President Donald Trump. On Friday, March 31, the Trump administration looked like it was in pretty sorry shape. It was beset not only by internal conflicts between Trump’s top personal advisors — Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — but by ongoing investigations by the FBI and both houses of Congress into whether the government of Russia not only attempted to influence the U.S. election in Trump’s favor but had the help of Trump’s top advisers in doing so. Within a week, all that had changed: not only had the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate abolished the filibuster on Presidential appointments to get Right-wing judge Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, which would have been a major victory in and of itself, but Trump had fired 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles from a U.S. destroyer into Syria to destroy, or at least damage, an air base that had allegedly been used by the Syrian government to attack one of their own cities with chemical weapons.
Instantly, the pundits that had been blasting Trump and saying his days in the White House were numbered were now hailing him as “Presidential.” There doesn’t seem to be anything quite like starting a war to boost a new President’s popularity ratings. It wasn’t always thus — back when both Presidents and Congresses took seriously the division of responsibility in the U.S. Constitution that it was up to Congress to decide when the U.S. would go to war, and only after that decision was reached would the President be the commander-in-chief of the forces fighting it, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had to drag the country kicking and screaming into the Civil War, World War I and World War II, respectively.
But since then starting a war has been a virtually sure-fire booster for Presidential popularity — although, maddeningly if you’re a U.S. President, keeping one going has had the opposite effect. Ronald Reagan’s numbers went up when he invaded Grenada even though few Americans could have found Grenada on a map before the U.S. sent troops into it. Likewise George H. W. Bush’s popularity went up when he led a coalition to retake Kuwait from Iraq, and his son George W. Bush’s went up when he (like Henry V) invaded a country that had been on his nation’s long-term shit list, started a war to overthrow its government and won a few quick victories. And Trump has made it to the “Presidential” list with his attack on Syria — though given that Assad has upped his ante and launched more chemical attacks since Trump’s April 7 raid, it’s anybody’s guess what the long-term consequences shall be and whether Trump and his advisers will be able to keep the U.S. attacks on Syria limited or whether they’ll grow into a full-scale war.
The civil war in Syria between the government of President Bashar al-Assad — who inherited the country in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad — and a wide variety of rebels, including fighters aligned with al-Qaeda or ISIS (“Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) has been going on for at least six years. It has forced at least five million people out of the country, most of them stuck in squalid refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan. President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attempted, carefully and gingerly, to let a few thousand of those refugees settle in the U.S. Trump slammed the door on that and named Syria as one of the six or seven countries whose citizens would not be allowed to travel or emigrate to the U.S. until his administration could put what he called “extreme vetting” programs in place (even beyond the extreme vetting Obama’s government had put them through) to make sure they’re not terrorists.
Obama followed a confused policy on Syria, refusing to commit U.S. ground forces to any side of Syria’s three-way civil war but running a multi-million dollar “training program” to build up an army of so-called “moderate rebels” who could take on both Assad and the al Qaeda-ISIS factions of the resistance to him. The program was a fiasco: the first training class produced 55 fighters and the second graduated 72. And after Assad launched a poison gas attack against Syrian rebel strongholds in 2013 that was far deadlier than the one Trump’s raid was responding to — it reportedly killed over 1,000 people instead of just 70 — Obama announced that Assad had crossed a “red line” and the U.S. would soon start retaliating with air strikes in Syria.
But we didn’t. We didn’t because instead Obama cut a deal with Syria’s principal protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin, that if the U.S. agreed not to attack Syria, Syria would destroy all its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons — and Russia would guarantee that they would do so. Until last week, there was no evidence that Assad still had chemical weapons, though Russia had so extensively intervened in the Syrian civil war that the Assad government had essentially won by 2017. Among the things the Russians had done for Assad was send planes into Syria to bomb rebel positions, ostensibly to fight ISIS but actually to help Assad’s forces against all the armed enemies of his regime. Since the U.S. and Russia were supposedly working together in Syria to fight ISIS, the two countries’ air forces had worked out what was given the rather awkward name “deconfliction” — meaning that they talked to each other about whose planes would be bombing where so they didn’t risk crashing their planes into each other or shooting each other down.
Indeed, by 2017 Bashar al-Assad’s government had so decisively won the Syrian civil war — it had retaken all the major cities the rebels had once held and reduced the opposition to a handful of isolated fighters in the countryside — that in late March U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (the former CEO of Exxon/Mobil and the recipient from Vladimir Putin personally of the highest decoration the Russian government ever gives to non-Russians) announced that the future of Assad was “a matter for the Syrian people to decide.” He got ragged over this by Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell at MS-NBC, but I suspect the message Tillerson was sending to Assad was, “You won your war already. Now you can stop killing your own people.” Instead what Assad seems to have heard was, “Oh, goody! I won my war already. Now I can kill even more of my own people.”
One of the open questions in the U.S. attack on Syria was why Bashar al-Assad decided to launch the chemical weapons attack against Syrians in the first place. That’s a more interesting question than where the chemical weapons came from — whether he colluded with Russia to keep some stockpiles intact, he deceived the Russians and kept some back from destruction, or all the Syrian chemical weapons that existed in 2013 were destroyed but Assad’s people later made more. (Sarin, the gas allegedly used in the attack, is not that difficult a chemical to make. In 1995 a Japanese terrorist group called Aum Shinrikyo produced some and used it to attack the Tokyo subway system. The actual attackers were caught relatively quickly, but the chemists who made the sarin for them weren’t arrested until 2012.)
Why on earth would Assad stage a gas attack now? What did he have to gain? He’s an Alawite Shi’ite Muslim leading a country with a Sunni Muslim majority — which is why the world’s largest Shi’ite Muslim country, Iran, is his biggest ally next to Russia. If he’d left well enough alone, he could probably have won at least the sullen, reluctant support of Syrian Sunnis who would have concluded that, whatever the problems with him, Assad definitely counted as the lesser of two evils over ISIS. Now he’s got the lasting enmity of a lot of Sunni Syrians and risks re-emboldening the rebels.
Assad has also got the United States, whose officials were seemingly resigned to him staying in power indefinitely, denouncing him as the most uniquely evil person in the world. Indeed, on April 11 Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, said on April 11 that even Adolf Hitler hadn’t stooped to using chemical weapons on the battlefield — which is historically accurate (Hitler had been the victim of a gas attack in World War I and was in a hospital recovering when that war ended, and the experience gave him a distaste for the use of gas in actual battles), but of course ignored the enormity of the Holocaust and the Nazis’ use of poison gas for the mass extermination of Jews and the Holocaust’s other, largely forgotten targets: Queers, Gypsies, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and people with disabilities. Given what’s happened to other petty tyrants, including Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, once American officials started denouncing them as the most evil people in the world, if I were Assad I’d be awfully worried about my future and maybe I’d wonder if it was time to get out of the country and spend the rest of my life in Switzerland hiding amongst my secret bank accounts.
And it’s also an open question what Assad’s chemical attack has to offer his principal ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The attack happened at an odd juncture in U.S.-Russian relations. Whether Putin and his good buddies in Russian intelligence (which he used to run) had advance knowledge either of Assad’s actions or the U.S. response (and the latter, at least, seems likely because of the ongoing “deconfliction” program through which the U.S. and Russia routinely notified each other whenever either was going to strike ISIS positions inside Syria), certainly the blowup and Trump’s decision to attack a major Russian ally is going to make it that much harder to build better relations with Russia. At a time when the FBI and both houses of Congress are investigating the 2016 election to try to determine whether Russia’s attempts to influence the outcome were done with the knowledge — or, worse, the collusion — of Trump campaign officials, armed conflict between the U.S. and a Russian ally isn’t going to make it easier for Putin to build whatever ties he was hoping for with Trump and his administration.
What’s In It for Trump?
Still, for the man who ordered the air strike against Syria, Donald Trump, the attack has been an unalloyed positive. First of all, it’s arrested the bizarre slide in his public approval rating, which before the attack had dropped in just five months from the 46 percent of the popular vote he won on November 8, 2016 to a mere 35 percent — the lowest numbers any new President this early in his term had racked up since modern polling started. Now the polls are reporting that 51 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s attack on Syria, versus just 40 percent opposed.
Second, it’s likely laid to rest once and for all the accusation that Donald Trump is President only because Vladimir Putin wanted him to be and manipulated the American electoral process to achieve that result. The attack on that score has been led by, of all people, Trump’s son Eric, who’s publicly stated that the attack proves that Trump is not in Russia’s pocket. Since the FBI and Congressional investigations began in earnest, Trump has been desperately trying to change the subject, first sending the chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committee to lobby the media not to publish stories about the alleged Trump/Russia connection, then accusing President Obama of wiretapping him during the campaign, then claiming that Obama’s foreign policy adviser Susan Rice had committed some unspecified crime and should be locked up (presumably in the cell next door to Hillary Clinton before he reneged on his promise to lock her up).
But where all the media lobbying and targeting of Obama and his people failed to knock the Trump-Russia investigation out of the media spotlight, the attack on Syria has brilliantly worked to change the conversation and made the American people see Trump as a bold, decisive leader who’s willing to risk war with a nuclear superpower to protect “babies, beautiful babies” and other victims of Syrian gas attacks. Indeed, a third appeal of the airstrike for Trump was that he could legitimately claim that he had the guts to do something Obama didn’t when Obama backed away from launching a U.S. strike against Syria in 2013. Never mind that back in 2013 Trump was using his favorite communications channel, Twitter, to tell Obama repeatedly that the U.S. had no business attacking Syria:
June 15, 2013: We should stay the hell out of Syria, the “rebels” are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $BILLIONS? ZERO.
August 29, 2013: What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long-term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.
September 3, 2013: What I am saying is stay out of Syria.
September 5, 2013: AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!
September 9, 2013: Don’t attack Syria — an attack that will bring nothing but trouble for the U.S. Focus on making our country strong and great again!
For Trump, a master practitioner of what George Orwell in 1984 called doublethink — “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind, and accepting both of them” — it doesn’t matter in the slightest that in 2013 he was telling Obama that Obama would be making a big mistake if he launched an airstrike against Syria, and now he’s giving himself points for having the balls to do something wimpy little Obama, with his exaggerated concern for the feelings of foreign leaders and unwillingness to put “America First,” didn’t have the guts to do. It also reassures the world that the U.S. is still willing to be the world’s policeman, and that Trump’s oft-repeated “America First” mantra doesn’t, in his mind — at least his mind as it’s thinking this week — have the isolationist and tacitly pro-fascist connotations “America First” had in the late 1930’s, when it was the slogan of the movement to keep the U.S. out of World War II.
It also helps Trump, ironically, that the actual attack was so ineffectual — just a few holes shot in one runway of a two-runway airfield and 20 planes taken out of commission — because it’s yet another way in which his propagandists can sell the media and the rest of America on the idea that Trump is now being “Presidential.” The talk in the first few days after the strike was that it had been a “measured, proportionate response” to the Syrian gas attack — that it hadn’t been a full-fledged commitment of the U.S. military to change the regime in Syria, the way George W. Bush had done in Iraq and Barack Obama had in Libya (with disastrous results). Apparently the bar to accepting Donald John Trump as fully “Presidential” has been set so low that anything that doesn’t make him look stark, staring mad — like his capable delivery of his fully prepared, scripted and Telepromptered speech to both houses of Congress, or his “measured, proportionate” firing of a few Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield — makes him look good.
Which brings us to the final lesson of the Syrian attack: never underestimate Donald Trump. He has an extraordinary ability, verging on genius, to present at least the appearance and aura of invincibility. Through his shrewd ability to manipulate public perceptions, he’s been able to convinced a good chunk of America — enough to elect him President — that he is a sagacious business leader and the acme of competence. I’m convinced many people who voted for him were sure that Trump was a superb businessperson who had never lost on a deal — even though his actual business record was considerably more checkered than that, with some spectacular losses (like Atlantic City) next to some solid wins — because they’d seen him play the ultimate all-wise businessman on his TV show The Apprentice.
Throughout the campaign his rivals in both the Republican and Democratic parties were sure the latest revelation, the newest negative story, the most recent public meltdown would be the one that would bring down Donald Trump. They were all wrong. Nobody in the media or the commentariat thought Trump would ever be elected President … until he was. And the people who were wrong about him then are still making the same predictions that there’s something out there that will bring Trump down. So far, though, Trump’s record as a politician, like his record as a businessman, has been marked by an unerring ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Maybe the steady drip-drip-drip of accusations of scandal, corruption, self-dealing, foreign influence or just plain insanity will undermine and ultimately erode the strong, almost cult-like support Trump still enjoys among his base voters — or maybe Trump will continue to ride out all the storms and maintain control of the U.S. for the next quarter-century, since he’s obviously grooming Jared Kushner to succeed him and Ivanka Trump to succeed him when age and the 22nd Amendment catch up with him in 2024.