We begin today’s roundup with Blake Hounshell at POLITICO and his analysis of Donald Trump’s decision to launch air strikes in Syria:
In the span of one week, President Trump and his team have pirouetted from declaring that Syria’s murderous dictator could stay in power to launching airstrikes against his regime—and possibly committing the United States to a new military conflict whose scope and scale are unknown.
It’s a dizzying turnabout for a man who complained endlessly during the presidential campaign about the trillions the United States had wasted on wars in the Middle East—and who urged his predecessor in 2013 not to launch “stupid” airstrikes to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people. [...]
With these strikes, Trump is taking an extraordinary gamble, one whose ramifications he or his administration can’t possibly have fully examined. The Syrian conflict is mind-bogglingly complicated, with dozens upon dozens of insurgent groups squaring off against the Syrian military and pro-regime sectarian militias along with forces from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Some of the insurgent groups are aligned with al Qaeda; others with ISIS. The U.S. works closely with Kurdish groups that are mortal foes of Turkey, a problematic ally that is increasingly at odds with the United States.
Has President Trump wrestled with all of this complexity? The guy who spent the morning he learned about the chemical-weapons attack riffing to reporters about Susan Rice, Bill O’Reilly and the last time he rode the subway?
Aaron Blake at The Fix also highlights Trump’s complete change in position:
Trump is reported to have been personally affected by the scenes of suffering and the information he has learned now that he's president — “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” he said late Thursday night in brief remarks, adding: “No child of God should ever suffer such horror” — but the barbarism and horror were there in 2013. Yet Trump took a firm line against intervention for years.
It may seem trivial to focus on Trump's past words in the light of the suffering in Syria and the realities of actually being president. But the fact is that the United States elected a man who promised to use force in a very circumspect manner and spoke unequivocally about it. [...]
Less than three months into his presidency, Trump has now responded to a not-unprecedented set of circumstances in Syria with an unprecedented degree of force and provocation.
John Cassidy at The New Yorker:
Assad’s brutality has been obvious for years. It was obvious in the summer of 2013, when President Obama considered a military strike in response to an earlier chemical-weapons attack by Syrian government forces. On that occasion, Trump, then a private citizen, urged caution, writing on Twitter, “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!” A week, later, again on Twitter, Trump warned, “President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!” Assad’s disregard for human life was in evidence again late last year, when his forces surrounded and bombed eastern Aleppo, killing and injuring a large numbers of civilians who were trapped in the city. That bloodshed didn’t prompt any eagerness to oust Assad on Trump’s part: to the contrary. [...]
What is the Trump Administration’s strategy on Syria going forward, and has it now endorsed regime change? What are the consequences for the war on isis, and for the military offensive against Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the terrorist group’s stronghold? Will Trump help alleviate the refugee crisis, which he referred to in his statement on Thursday, by admitting more displaced Syrians to the United States? And did Trump’s lowly poll ratings play any role in his decision to strike? In September, 2012, Trump tweeted, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in a tailspin–watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”
On the morning after, these questions, and others, demand answers.
Ashley Hoffman at TIME highlights the 18 times Trump discussed non-intervention in Syria on Twitter:
Before he was president, Donald Trump wrote that the U.S. should not bomb Syria in a number of tweets from 2013 to 2014. As the White House ordered strikes on Syria late Thursday, several of those old tweets were recirculating on Twitter, especially two in which he called for congressional approval before launching any military actions against the Middle Eastern country.
The president has come from a world of reality television and real estate deals in which talk is cheap. But he now holds the credibility of the world’s greatest power in his hands. Countries around the world look to the president of the United States for signals and strategy. People look to him for hope and help. In these circumstances, it’s one thing to be unpredictable; it’s another altogether to be incoherent.
John Nichols at The Nation:
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2016, bluntly declared that Trump’s action was “unconstitutional.”
“Assad is a brutal dictator who must be held to account for atrocities,” argued Kaine. “But the president’s failure to seek congressional approval is unlawful.”
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, a 2016 Republican presidential contender, agreed.
Paul Waldman at The Week:
[W]e still have almost no idea of what Trump actually thinks ought to be done in Syria, particularly as it relates to Bashar al-Assad, who will surely go down as one of the great war criminals of the 21st century. We do know that just days before Assad launched this attack, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that "the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people," while on the same day, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that "our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out." Whether Assad actually took those comments as a cue that he could act with impunity and that this would be a good time to demonstrate to his enemies that his ruthlessness knows no bounds, he had little reason to think that the Trump administration was interested in overthrowing him. [...]
Can anyone say what good this will do? The lesson for Assad seems to be that as long as he continues to kill civilians by means of ordinary bombs and bullets (or hang them by the thousands in his prisons), and forego chemical weapons, then he need not fear further interference from the United States. You can certainly criticize Barack Obama's inaction on Syria, but it's hard to argue that Assad's brutality will be any more restrained by President Trump.
And now that he has initiated military action, Trump must make a determination: What does he do now? I wouldn't be surprised if he has no idea. But he's going have to decide soon — and the consequences of his choice will be grave, no matter which direction he goes.
Look: I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that his revulsion at the gassing of children was the prompt for this dramatic and sudden use of military power. But there will doubtless be a rally in popularity at the precise moment he is sinking in the polls, appears increasingly stalled in Washington, and is desperate for a distraction. But quite what follows from this sudden impetuous drama in the Middle East remains, of course, to be seen. The one thing we know about Trump is that he hasn’t carefully thought it through.
While we’re on the subject of Trump’s “foreign policy,” I can’t get out of my head two recent White House pressers with two foreign leaders. The first showed a petulant, scowling child seated next to the leader of the free world, Angela Merkel. He pouted; he pursed his lips; and he refused pointedly to shake her hand, even after she suggested it. By many accounts, his private conversation revolved around Germany’s financial contribution to NATO, insisting, as if the alliance were a shakedown racket, that the Germans repay the U.S. countless billions for defense over the years. It was as if the Second World War had never happened.
Now watch the public meeting with the Egyptian dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Trump was almost as fawning, excited, and thrilled as the Egyptian leader himself. “We agree on so many things,” the president said. He praised the tyrant for his “fantastic” record; he nodded and beamed when el-Sisi noted that he hadn’t been allowed in the White House under Obama. And then the handshake – except this time, it was markedly un-Trumpy. There was no sudden pull, no endless glad-handing, merely a brief, affectionate normal handshake. And a giant beam on both faces.
The contrast sickens.
Akbar Shahid Ahmed at The Huffington Post focuses on the fact Trump’s refugee ban targets the very “beautiful babies” he mentioned in his speech last night:
As President Donald Trump on Thursday night announced a military strike on Syria because of his deep concern for “beautiful babies” and other civilians killed in a chemical weapons attack this week, two legal battles continued over his efforts to keep Syrian children and their families out of the United States.
The president’s first ban on refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries is being litigated in a federal court in Seattle. His second attempted Muslim ban remains blocked by a federal judge in Hawaii, with an appeals court scheduled to hear the case in May.
Here’s Joshua Keating’s analysis at Slate:
No doubt, the footage from the attack is hard to take. But you have to wonder why Trump’s humanity was not similarly touched by the children killed in the 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, the stomach-churning allegations of systematic torture of children by Syrian forces, the many children killed by the Syrian regime’s barrel bombs, or the now iconic photo of a dazed little boy covered in dust in an ambulance in Aleppo, not to mention the also iconic image of a drowned Syrian refugee boy on a beach in Turkey. While all this was going on, Trump was arguing that the U.S. should be working with Assad, who he called a potential “natural ally.”
Perhaps, given all the feelings, Trump should stop trying to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the United States. Perhaps, given his new mindset, Trump should have a conversation with his press secretary Sean Spicer, who responded in January to a question about the detention of a 5-year-old Iranian that, “to assume that just because of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.” Perhaps, given his new attitude, the president should consider one good option for helping the children of Syria: killing fewer of them.
During his campaign, Trump accused the Obama administration of waging a “politically correct” war on ISIS and said he supported killing the families of terrorists. Since coming to power, he has altered policies put in place by the previous administration to prevent civilian casualties in U.S. airstrikes, and what do you know, there has been a dramatic increase in those casualties, including kids.
And, on a final note, here’s Will Bunch’s take:
Now, today, our president says he's changing his mindset on Syria. OK, but real empathy is more than just words. You want to show the beautiful babies of Syria that you meant what said, Mr. President? Let them come to America.