The burly Armani gym sock we know as Rex Tillerson flew to Moscow on Tuesday, apparently bringing stern words for the Kremlin about the downside of backing Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad now that President Donald Trump has discovered chemical warfare is bad. But the Russians probably know better than to take this seriously, considering that Tillerson is only Trump’s Secretary of State and not a consequential envoy like, say, Jared Kushner. Reportedly, he won’t even get face time with Vladimir Putin—or rather chest time, since spring is here and we all know how Putin loves to go shirtless while he’s poisoning stool pigeons in the park.
Remember, less than two weeks ago, Tillerson was burbling that Assad’s future was up to “the people of Syria.” His hands-off stance may have actually emboldened Assad to launch the chemical attack that upset Trucky McTrumpface so much he ordered a meaningless—but showy!—U.S. retaliatory strike on a Syrian airfield last Friday. Or maybe not so meaningless, if you ask Eric Trump: “If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” he recently bragged to a Brit newspaper, speaking from one of Daddy’s golf courses in Merrie Olde. Left unreported was which way the cat Eric had just let out of the bag scrambled. Toward the clubhouse? Straight for the nearest sand trap?
Last Thursday, soon after the missiles went ka-whoosh, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews became the first reputable (well, sort of) media talking head to voice a hunch that Trump’s air strike was a “set piece” meant “to kill the narrative that he’s in bed with Putin.” It’s never been hard to ridicule Matthews, whose excitable brain makes the average pinball machine look decorous. Even so, his suspicions were a dandy corrective to the rest of the MSM’s fawning initial reaction to the attack.
Americans are genuinely hesitate to turn against a POTUS once we’ve got troops in harm’s way.
CNN analyst Fareed Zakaria declared that Trump had just “become President of the United States” for real, apparently forgetting that that’s what everybody said after Trucky’s address to Congress back in February. Funny how the illusion didn’t last long then either. Worse yet was Matthews’s MSNBC colleague Brian Williams, who kept calling the strike footage “beautiful” and outraged Leonard Cohen fans worldwide by unironically quoting Cohen’s lyric about “the beauty of our weapons.” If the sight of Williams’s daughter Allison getting a rim job on Girls a few seasons back disturbed you, trust us: it’s nothing compared to watching her father give one.
Early on, that sort of euphoric poppycock left Matthews a voice in the wilderness. Over the weekend, though, more people began to agree that Trump’s Syria strike looked a lot like a convenient bit of theater to put daylight between himself and Putin and distract us from his other troubles. That was partly because we were catching on that it hadn’t actually accomplished anything.
As a military action, it was essentially a sham, since we were obliged to warn the Russians beforehand under the “deconfliction” agreement that Putin has now ostentatiously suspended. The Russians promptly warned Assad and no serious damage to his facilities was done—or probably was intended. The Syrian air force was back in business the next day, albeit with conventional weapons rather than chemical ones, but weapons that kill hapless Syrians nonetheless.
It’s equally obvious that the strike wasn’t part of any larger strategy, because we still don’t have one as far as Syria is concerned. We probably never will. Proving that Armani gym socks make good chew toys, Tillerson may have obediently switched to advocating Assad’s ouster as the key ingredient in an eventual solution, but that’s no different from the Obama administration’s long-held (and ineffectual) position, which Trump himself denounced throughout the 2016 campaign. His 2013 tweets warning against rash military moves in Syria and accusing Obama of manipulating Middle Eastern crises for short-term domestic political gain make fairly entertaining reading today.
Trump probably isn’t especially distressed that Putin is making menacing noises about retaliation if the U.S. takes any further steps against Assad’s regime. Besides serving his new zest to prove the bromance is over, the Kremlin’s well-advertised truculence provides an excellent reason to back off from repeating last week’s attack anytime soon; not in Syria, anyhow. Nor should we forget that Putin, too, knows a lot about how to stage-manage good theater—more than Trucky does, since he’s had far more practice at it.
To say the least, we’ve been here before. Back in August 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal reached boiling point, Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory linked to Osama bin Laden. The move was widely interpreted as a desperate bid to distract us from Monicagate by wrapping himself in the Commander-in-Chief’s mantle, but if that was indeed the intent, it didn’t work. (He got impeached that December anyway.) Trump’s Syria attack may have won him a news cycle, which we all know is pretty much his maximum attention span. But without any follow-through, it’s unlikely to distract the country for long from the ongoing Russiagate investigations, his stalled legislative priorites or his disarrayed White House.
Unfortunately for us, things are different when a president puts boots on the ground. George W. Bush enjoyed a charmed life during his first term and even got re-elected in large part because Americans are genuinely hesitate to turn against a POTUS once we’ve got troops in harm’s way. As Dubya learned, just like Lyndon B. Johnson did before him, that can change in a hell of a hurry once we get fed up with the conflict in question. But if Trump wants to boost his poll ratings and immunize himself from criticism for the foreseeable future, he unquestionably needs an honest-to-gosh war, not just a one-off missile strike.
After last week, he’s probably figured out (knock on wood) that Syria isn’t the place for one. But say, doesn’t taking out North Korea look tempting? Tweeting that “North Korea is looking for trouble,” which may be true but also sounds like a pot calling the kettle black, Trump has already sent a Navy strike group that way while vowing to take unilateral action if he doesn’t get China on board to rein in Pyongyang. Because the North Koreans make such obliging villains, they’re already threatening a nuclear attack if the U.S. keeps provoking them, and never mind that it’s unclear just what their nukes are capable of hitting. Probably not Los Angeles or even Honolulu, but this is unlikely to be a great reassurance to the inhabitants of Seoul.
So far, on both ends, this is just saber-rattling, something we and North Korea have intermittently engaged in for decades. But Trump seems determined to keep noisily rattling his saber until somebody takes him up on it, and Kim Jong Un—that demented answer to Hello Kitty—is one of the relative handful of world leaders who can make Trump look like the reasonable one. Besides, thanks to the Syria attack, we’re suddenly used to the idea of Trump as Commander-in-Chief, whether we like it or not. Depending on how things play out, we may eventually recognize last week’s missile strike for what it was: a small-scale rehearsal before the big show.