• Ideas

Airstrikes Don’t Mean Trump Is Suddenly Compassionate or Strategic

4 minute read
Jordan is a TIME columnist, an NBC News/MSNBC political analyst and a co-host of the Words Matter podcast.

It might be naive to feel surprised by the bipartisan cheering of President Donald Trump’s quick decision to lob 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria. But why is it strange to expect the Commander in Chief to invest a shred of thought and planning into the decision to launch a bunch of bombs? Would Congressional approval have been too much to ask?

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons should provoke strong emotions — which is exactly why military action by the most capricious American president in history should be debated and approved by Congress. Otherwise, expect Trump’s à la carte foreign policy to yield à la carte stability.

Our president loves a tweet-able victory. Trump’s first war follows the pattern of crony-capitalistic micro-management of American industry, just like those 730 jobs at a Carrier furnace factory in Indiana he proudly trumpeted that he saved. Though good for 730 people and their families in the near term, Trump’s solution in Indiana is just a band-aid for a problem that needs a tourniquet. Artificial intelligence threatens to eliminate millions of jobs over the next two decades. Now, Trump’s action in Syria is the foreign-policy equivalent of his Look-at-all-the-jobs-I-saved! tweets: a superficial victory that’s tactically meaningless.

Eisenhower famously said that plans are nothing but planning is everything. Though policymakers deserve flexibility when implementing a strategy, Trump has neither plan nor strategy in Syria; he chose from the military’s prix-fixe selection because his mood changed after he saw horrific images of gassed children on television.

My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” Trump said, revealing his evident ignorance of years of slaughter and ongoing toxic attacks in the ongoing conflict that has killed tens of thousands of children.“That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”

Because of his undisciplined rhetoric, Trump committed himself to multi-million dollar action to avoid his predecessor’s notoriously hollow “red line” threat. Despite UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s bluster that this is not a “soft power” administration, Trump chose cruise missiles, a primarily soft-target weapon. Cruise missiles simply won’t cut it if the goal is to cause lasting destruction: a real campaign requires penetrating missiles to take out command and control centers, radar sites and all logistics.

Clearly sensitive about his impotent strikes, Trump tweeted on Saturday that the strikes weren’t supposed to take out the runways. So what was the point, exactly?

For all of Trump’s posturing about his belief in the element of surprise, the timeline dispels any notion of imminent threat requiring hasty action: to prevent a bigger conflict, the Russians were forewarned, which means they in turned forewarned the Syrian allies with whom they share the air base.

Tactically meaningless and strategically flailing. And yet pundits on both sides praised Trump. When pundits and the bipartisan political class praise an isolated strike with no clear tactical or strategic value, they become part of the problem.

Never mind that Trump was holding hands with the Egyptian dictator two days prior; a casual bombing campaign meant that Trump suddenly has a heart. Never mind that Trump showed concern for his friend Bill O’Reilly having to pony up millions after multiple women accused O’Reilly of sexual harassment; launching missiles makes Trump a serious person.

We live in a rare, scary time when television commentators occupy a unique vantage point of influence over a President whose hunger for praise is matched only by his superhuman appetite for cable news. Trump specifically queried Sean Spicer about the reception of the airstrikes from Congress and foreign leaders, Spicer noted in a timeline provided to reporters, adding, “There was fairly unanimous praise for the decision and the action the president took.”

By cheerleading Trump’s impulsivity, pundits provided the president with the incentive to continue to shoot first and not even bother to ask questions later. Without a grand strategy, Trump confuses our allies and adversaries alike and makes it virtually impossible to harness the vast power of America’s diplomatic, military and economic might. If everyone’s confused amidst the constant chaos, that’s weakness, not greatness.

There may be a moral case for intervention in Syria, but until a few days ago Trump had spent years arguing against it. Unless he can explain why his about-face serves the interests of the American public he — and we — should stay out.


More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.