If you've watched any reality TV contest show, you're familiar with a particular style of cliffhanger that comes around the 50-minute mark, where the contestants are assembled to find out the results of that round of competition. After a long pause in which the camera pans their hopeful, nervous faces, the host says, "The winner of today's contest is…" Cut to commercial.
That's essentially what President Trump did on Monday, announcing that he'll be making a decision in the next 24 to 48 hours on how he'll respond to the latest apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, this one in the district of Douma, in which dozens of people were killed. Tune in to see what he decides!
I'm pretty sure I know what he'll decide. Trump is probably going to order some airstrikes against some kind of asset of the Syrian government, much as he did almost exactly a year ago when he sent missiles to hit an airfield. How do I know this? Let's run down the reasons:
Trump needs to do something. One can argue that it's awfully selective to express outrage over Assad killing a few dozen people with chemical weapons when you were far less worked up when he killed around half a million people with conventional weapons. But with all the extra attention given to a chemical attack and with American forces already active in Syria fighting ISIS, it would be hard for Trump to simply ignore the situation. As the formulation goes: We should do something; airstrikes are something; therefore we should launch airstrikes.
Trump needs to look strong. Strength is one of Trump's obsessions; he even uses the idea in bizarre ways, as when he claims that in regard to some new issue or question, "We'll be looking at that very strongly." He said it again Monday, noting that while he isn't certain whether Syria, Russia, or Iran was responsible for the attack in Douma, "We're looking at that very, very strongly." Nobody does strong looking like President Trump, with his powerful, muscle-bound eyes.
Naturally, a response based in diplomacy isn't nearly strong enough; if you want to show strength and show it strongly, you need to blow stuff up.
Trump doesn't want to be like Obama. Almost from the moment he took office, Trump has had a singular desire to undo whatever Barack Obama accomplished and avoid doing anything Obama did. Back in 2012, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would be punished if Assad crossed it, but he seemed to lose his nerve the next year after a chemical weapons attack. In the end he asked Congress to authorize military action but Republicans refused (because it was Obama), and the administration ended up working with Russia to remove and destroy Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons.
That series of events is now widely understood as having been insufficiently punitive for Assad, even by many of Obama's admirers. So when Trump was presented with a chemical attack in April 2017, he was sure to respond with more force than Obama had. Nothing about that has changed. He's still blaming Obama for the situation in Syria, and will want to make clear that he's different.
Trump doesn't want to get bogged down in Syria, or anywhere else. Since he began running for president, Trump has been consistent in his belief that nation-building is a bad idea. If you want to make a point it's all well and good to launch some bombs, but sticking around afterward is just asking for trouble. That's the lesson he took from Iraq and Afghanistan, where American troops are still fighting 16 years after we invaded, and it's hard to argue with, at least up to a point. And just last week, Trump announced that he wants to get the hell out of Syria. "I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home," he said.
If Trump is looking for a response that appears strong and resolute, differs from what Obama did, and doesn't risk getting sucked deeper into the Syrian civil war, then airstrikes are the way to go. He can do it with little or no risk to American personnel, and it will still provide dramatic images for TV news.
And we know, because we've seen it so many times before, that when the missiles and planes start flying and the explosions begin, the media will eat it up. They may consider the Syrian civil war an old story, but whenever American military power is exercised they get aroused. The graphics department will put together some jazzy titles ("Showdown in the Middle East!") to swoop in over dramatic music, and everyone will marvel at the spectacle of our awesome might being deployed as the ratings tick up.
Then what happens when it's over? Probably nothing. You don't have to agree with John McCain that Trump's expressed desire to leave Syria "emboldened" Assad to stage a chemical weapons attack, but everyone knows Trump isn't going to try to topple Assad's regime. While I suppose it's possible that a sufficiently vigorous round of airstrikes might convince Assad to lay off the chemical weapons for a while, he seems to be doing a pretty good job slaughtering people with conventional arms.
Some American bombs aren't going to change the fundamental trajectory of the Syrian civil war. But they will allow President Trump to feel like he's standing tall, and all his Republican allies will applaud him for being so strong and resolute. Then maybe we'll do it all over again a year from now.