Trump, Syria & How Not To Be “Presidential”

Donald Trump and Syria

Just as they did with his practiced, non-shouting address to Congress a few weeks ago, several pundits (like Fareed Zakaria) are labeling the decision to throw out all existing foreign policy positions in order to bomb Syria as the first time Donald Trump has acted “presidentially” or lived up to the expectations of the office.

Let’s be crystal clear: shirking existing policy to impulsively bomb another country after seeing footage of dead children on Fox News is not presidential. Failing to seek the advice or consent of Congress as is required by the Constitution is also not presidential.

In their undying quest to seem “balanced” by providing two sides of every issue – even when issues lack two sides – pundits have raced to the bottom over the last several weeks attempting to prove they have no ‘liberal bias’ by lowering the bar so far even Lex Luther is presidential in Trumpian terms. (This is not hyperbole.)

Last night’s military engagement in Syria is no different.

Conservative writer David French summed it up well writing for the National Review yesterday:

If Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution means anything, it means that the president must obtain congressional approval before taking us to war against a sovereign nation that has not attacked the U.S. or its allies and is not threatening to attack the U.S. or its allies. Senator Rand Paul said as much in an interview today, and I agree with him. As Senator Paul said, “The first thing we ought to do is probably obey the Constitution.”

Yes, the commander-in-chief has broad, inherent authority to order the military to defend the national security and vital national interests of the United States, but every provision of the Constitution has meaning, and the Constitution gives to Congress the power to “declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” While I acknowledge there are difficult questions on the margins about the extent of presidential authority and when congressional authorization is necessary, I don’t believe this is a marginal case.

There has been a casus belli for war against Syria on a continuous basis since the onset of Assad’s genocide, but the existence of a legal and moral justification for war does not always render war wise or just. Nor does it remove the need for congressional approval. There is no reason to forego congressional debate now, just as there was no reason to forego congressional debate when Obama considered taking the nation to war against Syria in 2013.

Congressional approval is not only constitutional, it serves the public purpose of requiring a president to clearly outline the justifications for war and his goals for the conflict. It also helps secure public support for war, and in this instance it strikes me as reckless that we would not only go to war against a sovereign nation, we’d also court a possible military encounter with a great power like Russia without congressional approval. The nation needs to be ready for (and consider) all the grim possibilities and consequences. If Trump wants to go to war, he should take his case to Congress.

That’s merely the rule of law though (despite the fact that Trump literally ran on a platform of bringing that very notion back). The current administration has demonstrated time and again that truth – let alone rule of law – has little application or relevancy in the current administration.

Nothing that’s happened in the past 24 hours warrants a complete reversal in White House foreign policy – particularly a reversal that has the power to take the United States into war. This isn’t the first time Bashar al-Assad has engaged in outright genocide. It’s not even the first time he’s engaged in chemical warfare, in fact.

That Donald Trump sat, watching cable news and images of dying children in Syria, and decided to throw everything he’s argued over the last four years out the window isn’t just unnerving – it’s downright terrifying. It’s ‘shooting from the hip’ foreign policy that has the potential to land us in another Bush-style post-9/11 Iraq quagmire.

Isaac Chotiner at Slate agreed in an article published earlier today:

As we saw following Trump’s first address to Congress, the president is so nightmarish that some of us who observe him are desperate to forget who precisely America elected and are forever hoping he can change. This can manifest itself consciously or unconsciously. It began Thursday, before the strike, when Hillary Clinton said she believed the United States should take out Assad’s airfields. That would have been a more plausible suggestion in a different universe than the one we live in—a universe in which a bigoted, Muslim-hating, and incompetent man wasn’t the commander in chief of the United States armed forces. It continued throughout the afternoon and evening as the missile strike launched and Trump received heavy praise on cable news. Fareed Zakaria said on CNN that this airstrike was the moment Trump had “[become] president.” Not only was this nonsense a near-repeat of what Van Jones had said on CNN following Trump’s speech to Congress, but it ignored January’s botched Yemen raid, a military action that Trump ordered. (For what it’s worth, the United States is already engaged in combat in Iraq and Syria with some of the groups fighting Assad.)

Trump’s impulsive decision is already shaping the pundit narrative, too. Forgetting his anti-Muslim rhetoric and Muslim Ban that explicitly targeted the very people who died in Syria last night, media pundits are salivating at the chance to paint Trump as being the empathetic leader who stood up to Assad.

Chotiner called out several of these news pundits:

The nonsense continued throughout Thursday night and Friday morning. Matt K. Lewis, the Daily Beast writer and CNN personality, took note of the references to God in Trump’s statement on the airstrikes and salivated over the president’s moral seriousness. Even worse was Mark Landler’s “news analysis” in the New York Times on why Trump, who has shown a strong affinity for dictators and little concern for suffering, greenlit the attack. Failing to mention that the president was in the process of banning refugees from America, Landler painted a laughable picture of a man consumed with grief because of images of children dying. (“On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First,” the Times tweeted.)

Chotiner made a lucid, frightening point analyzing the praise these pundits laid on him for “acting” in crisis:

Not only does coverage like this badly distort an important issue like Syria, but it serves as a reminder (as if one were needed) of exactly the boost—not to mention the political capital—Trump would gain in the case of a national emergency or terrorist attack. As if a Trump with normal powers wasn’t horrifying enough.

What’s more, all indications point to last night being more for public relations than real show of force. Several outlets reported today that Syria knew ahead of time that Trump would attack allowing them time to move any weapons and planes that might have been destroyed in an unannounced attack. Though the Trump administration did not tell anyone on the ground in Syria of their plans, they did inform Russia about thirty minutes before the attack – a notification that undoubtedly went directly to the Syrian regime to allow them to prepare.

In fact, in letting Russia know about his intent to target a specific Syrian target, Trump ultimately allowed Putin to notify his ally Assad in time for the base to be spared any major damage. It was operational by the following day, in fact.

Trump’s ‘military theater’ follows explicit and vehement attacks on former President Barack Obama for attempting to take military action in 2013 when Assad carried out a previous chemical weapons attack on his own people.

“President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day!” Trump said in September 2013.

He added, “Obama must now start focusing on OUR COUNTRY, jobs, healthcare and all of our many problems. Forget Syria and make America great again!”

But that’s not all:


Nothing in the way Assad carried out the attack on his own citizens changed in the before and after of the chemical weapons attack on his people this week. In fact, the only thing that appears to have changed is Donald Trump’s awareness that genocide in Syria is actually a real thing.

Speaking last night from his private Florida club that enjoys millions in taxpayer subsidies, Trump said “Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children.” He added, “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered at this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

This week’s deaths of women and children didn’t change Trump any more than last week’s or the deaths the week before that. Nor did the deaths during the presidential debates change his mind as he not only guffawed over a Syria question, but appeared to defend Assad and his chemical weapons attack in 2013.

Last week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirmed Trump’s stance that the United States had no intention of intervening in Syrian affairs. This week – after a much smaller scale chemical weapons attack compared to 2013 – Trump unilaterally took military action against the actual government of Syria.

Up until that point U.S. military efforts in Syria only targeted ISIS and Al Qaeda rebels. The Trump administration’s attack – for the first time since the civil unrest there began – marked a direct attack on Syria’s ruling government. And that was done not only in direct contradiction to existing national foreign policy statements but also without the consent or advice of Congress (the body tasked with approving war-beginning military actions).

Regardless of public opinion of the need to intervene in Syria (as Assad is a brutal dictator that’s murdered literally thousands of people), the reasoning, context and methods the U.S. uses to enter into another international quagmire have to be carefully examined. That’s why Obama officially requested a declaration of war so he could use the full force of the U.S. armed forces to stop Assad after his 2013 attack (to which Congress literally ignored the request). That’s why Trump’s haphazard and as of yet unexplained bombing needs to be explained.

Thus far all the nation knows is that after images of civilians – including many children – appeared on television showing the visual evidence of what happens to those still trapped in Syria, Trump authorized a limited bombing. He made a point of mentioning those images in his statements. None of the thousands of deaths before those 70-some people affected him (including the 2013 chemical weapons attack that killed over 1000 people). But those images (allegedly) did.

If the sight of dead Syrian children really did affect Trump, he would have paired his bombing with an announcement about admitting refugees so they won’t be subjected to further threats from the Assad regime.

As Congressman Seth Moultan (D-MA) argued, “So @POTUS cares enough about the Syrian people to launch 50 Tomahawks but not enough to let the victims of Assad find refuge & freedom here.”

The thousands of women and children seeking sanctuary in the United States are not terrorists (as Trump has repeatedly argued). Terrorists don’t typically submit to a rigorous vetting process that on average takes over two years to qualify for resettlement. Moreover, only one (Somalian) refugee has been responsible for any major terrorist attack or mass shooting within the United States in over three decades.

Just as Trump’s reasoning for engaging in a complete reversal in foreign policy remains a mystery, his rationale for continuing to ban Syrian refugees sanctuary makes absolutely no sense.

As it stands, Trump’s reactionary bombing – coordinated with Russia just before the attack no less – represent the latest in Trump’s dangerous foreign policy inexperience and need for attention.

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[Updates were added to clarify Trump’s foreign policy as having changed over the last week as well as expand on his Syrian refugee policy.]

Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.

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