The Elite Consensus on Syria

As long as liberals cheerlead Trump's military action in Syria, right-wing hawks barely have to lift a finger.

A Tomahawk missile fired during a US military training exercise in 2014. David Flewellyn / US Navy

Centrists and op-ed columnists, take heart. At a time of seemingly unprecedented gridlock and partisan rancor in Washington, there’s still something that can bring America’s divided political class together: a good old-fashioned war.

Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to reverse course and bomb an airbase to avenge the Syrian people who he is also desperately trying to keep out of the country may have come as a shock to those who believed his inconsistent promises on the campaign trail to keep the United States out of foreign wars. For most others, though, launching a bombing campaign like this one was only a matter of time.

But unlike the Trump administration’s half-baked attempt to yank health insurance from millions of people, its utter failures in instituting a racist immigration program, or its ongoing efforts to round up and break apart millions of families, Trump’s bombing of Syria likely won’t be met with a wall of “resistance,” certainly not within the halls of power. That’s because for nearly all liberal and conservative pundits and politicians, foreign wars — particularly those launched in the name of “humanitarianism” — are an issue where no leader, even one as disliked as Trump, can ever go wrong.

There were the usual suspects. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have never met a war they didn’t want to send others to fight, praised Trump for acting at a “pivotal moment in Syria,” “unlike the previous administration,” despite their often-lauded history of rhetorically standing up to Trump. (“He’s been his usual, incredibly politically brave self,” one Democratic senator said of Graham as they investigated Trump’s Russia ties).

At least those two are consistent warmongers. But much of the Republican support for Trump’s bombing has come from his former political enemies who once spent their hours grandstanding about his lack of fitness for office — and even opposed Obama’s proposed airstrikes on Syria four years ago, though not out of any concern for the suffering such airstrikes would produce.

Marco Rubio, who refused to lend his support to Obama’s plan because it was “basically a symbolic strike to send a message, but not backed up by a clear plan,” yesterday told his Twitter followers that “#Somethingshouldhappen,” that Trump was “deeply moved by the images & stories emerging from #SyriaChemicalAttack,” and ended up quoting the Bible to cheer on Trump “acting decisively.”

Meanwhile, Paul Ryan — who in 2013 declared that Obama “needs to clearly demonstrate that the use of military force would strengthen America’s security” — called Trump’s action “appropriate and just.” Ted Cruz wrote an entire op-ed in the Washington Post that same year explaining why he wasn’t backing Obama’s plans for a “limited airstrike,” citing the fact that Assad’s use of chemical weapons didn’t threaten US national security and that “the potential for escalation is immense.” On Thursday, as tomahawks rained down on Syria, he issued a milquetoast statement that simply stated he looked forward to hearing Trump make the case for how to keep chemical weapons out of terrorists’ hands.

Republican lawmakers’ partisan hypocrisy and lust for war is hardly surprising. But Trump’s strike was also enabled by significant liberal and Democratic support, before, during, and after the strike.

MSNBC spent the days leading up to the airstrike goading Trump into taking some kind of action.

“Men, women, children, and babies got gassed in Syria this week because last week the Trump administration gave the signal that, that was OK with President Trump,” Lawrence O’Donnell said on Wednesday, referring to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s equivocation over whether Assad should stay or go. “Everything Donald Trump has ever said about President Assad has been a signal for Assad to go on killing as many people as he felt like,” he later added.

O’Donnell then brought on neoconservative Max Boot, one of the few men whose full name doubles as his foreign policy, to further beat the drums. “This is not the first time the kids have been killed,” Boot said. “Donald Trump has always been OK with this in the past, but now they’ve crossed some kind of line. Well, OK, so what are you going to do about it?”

Boot, who has urged the United States “unambiguously to embrace its imperial role” and is completely unrepentant about his longtime support for the Iraq War, has been calling for US involvement in Syria since Bush was in power.

The night before, former Fox anchor Greta van Susteren interviewed Democratic senator Ben Cardin, who had voted in 2013 to authorize Obama to strike Syria. Van Susteren tried to coax support for unilateral action out of Cardin (“Are you saying that we should do something alone in Syria? What are you saying we’re going to do? We’re not going to get help out of the UN”), but when it wasn’t forthcoming, she turned to Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger, who affirmed that “there needs to be punishing strikes against the Syrian regime as a result of this.” Kinzinger returned the next morning on the network, repeating his call for “punishing airstrikes.”

MSNBC also had on Rhode Island Democrat David Cicilline (who had earlier charged that it was “shameful that the White House is no longer seeking to remove Bashir al-Assad from power”), who pushed for some kind of unnamed action to get Assad out of power. That same day, Democratic operative and Clinton ally Peter Daou tweeted: “I oppose @realDonaldTrump’s policies, but I wilfully support appropriate retaliation against #Assad’s war crimes in #Syria.” Daou believes Trump is a “dangerous bigot” and “a danger to the free world,” but he sees no problem with supporting such a man’s use of US military might.

Things continued to heat up the day of Trump’s decision. Van Susteren interviewed retired general Barry McCaffrey, who suggested the Trump administration “give the US Air Force and Navy fifteen days and tell them to take out the Syrian Air Force.” When she suggested such action could also take out Russian military, possibly escalating the conflict, McCaffrey assured her that “Russia is a second- or third-tier military power.”

Meanwhile, just hours before the man she had dubbed “Dangerous Donald” ordered planes to start bombing Syria, former Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton told a friendly audience that his actions were exactly the approach the United States should take.

“I really believe we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them,” she said to a steadily building crescendo of applause. (Yet somehow, liberal journalists used the occasion to declare that Clinton never would have done such a thing.)

Thus far, Trump appears to have been richly rewarded by the press for his “decisive” actions, with even his sworn enemies praising his decision to go into Syria with no apparent plan or goal other than “sending a message.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who otherwise spends his days brainstorming possible ways to kick Trump out of office, stated last night that “Trump is right to make Syria pay a price for war crimes” and that “taking out airfields is the best approach.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Kristof had been earlier interviewing Clinton when she made the same suggestion.

MSNBC had on a number of guests who gushed about the attack. Marco Rubio expounded on the strategic importance of the airstrikes. Nicholas Kristof reiterated that Trump had done the right thing, citing the fact that Clinton had “prescribed pretty much exactly the same response.” Democratic representative Jim Hines then affirmed that Kristof was correct and that “there is definitely virtue in making sure that Assad understands that if he steps over that line . . . there is a price to be paid.”

Entirely missing from the broadcast was any semblance of a war-skeptical voice, pointing out, as Micah Zenko has, that US limited airstrikes have a poor track record of actually achieving anything, or explaining that most long-term military adventures usually start off as a form of “limited” involvement — from Vietnam, to Libya, to Syria itself.

A number of top Democrats took a break from resisting Trump to also pat him on the back for his decision. Senate Democratic whip Dick Durbin called it a “measured response” (only in Washington could firing fifty-nine missiles into a country be considered “measured”). The previously restrained Ben Cardin called it a “clear signal that the United States will stand up for internationally accepted norms and rules against the use of chemical weapons.” Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi both backed the move, with Schumer calling it “the right thing to do,” and Pelosi terming it a “proportional response.”

Trump must have known his decision would get such a friendly reception. After all, it was only a little over a month ago that he received torrents of praise from pundits, liberal and conservative, for paying tribute to a fallen Navy SEAL whom he had sent to die in a chaotic and poorly planned raid that killed thirty civilians. Now, even his sworn enemies were falling over themselves to praise what could be the start of regime change in Syria.

The pattern seems clear: when people die, Trump gets plaudits.

The spectacle of liberals cheerleading and, subsequently, congratulating Trump for taking a short-sighted military action in Syria shouldn’t be surprising. But it is an essential element in legitimizing and enabling such military misadventures, applying a bipartisan coating to questionable military operations that allows presidents to launch them without fear of deeper scrutiny.

As long as liberals continue doing their work for them, right-wing hawks barely have to lift a finger.