Nothing seemed to be going right for Donald Trump during the first 11 weeks of his presidency. Federal courts blocked his attempts to ban citizens from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US. He failed to repeal former president Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation (“Obamacare”), because so-called moderates in the Republican Party thought his proposed replacement was too harsh, and extremists thought it wasn’t harsh enough.
Moreover, Trump’s national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, had to step down because of dodgy dealings with the Russians, and members of his inner circle at the White House are fighting like cats and dogs. The New York Times and The Washington Post have both called Trump a liar. His approval ratings were dipping to 35%, the lowest ever recorded for a new president.
Then, seemingly on the spur of the moment, Trump ordered an attack by 59 Tomahawk missiles on a Syrian air base. After years of horrendous bombings and torture by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, after adamantly refusing to allow Syrians to escape the carnage by coming to the US as refugees, and after making clear only last week that the US would do nothing to topple Assad, Trump saw pictures of children foaming at the mouth after another chemical gas attack, and changed his mind.
Suddenly Obamacare, chaos in the White House, wild tweets and political incoherence, as well as a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, for which Trump had appeared unprepared, were utterly forgotten. The same New York Times that had been in high dudgeon about the president from the moment he came to power now devoted almost every column inch to the steadfastness of the commander-in-chief, who had acted to teach the world (meaning China, Russia and North Korea) a fine lesson.
And not just The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal hailed Trump’s move, of course, but so did The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who claimed that “the moral dimensions of leadership” had now found its way into the Trump White House. Brian Williams, anchorman on MSNBC, was so excited by images of the missile attack that he could find only one word for them: “Beautiful.”
You would have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy seeing Assad get a bloody nose. Bombing your own civilians, or indeed anyone, with poison gas is a ghastly war crime. But striking an airfield is not a strategy and will do little to bring Syria’s civil war to an end.
Those Tomahawk strikes have, however, distracted attention from Trump’s political problems. And that, more than a heart that suddenly began bleeding, must be at least part of the explanation for his action.
Trump may not know much about the world, and his ignorance of foreign policy may be boundless, but he has been a master of one particular art: self-promotion through the manipulation of traditional and social media. He knows how to grab the news. His aim, as a reality TV star, a marketer of his brand, and a politician, has been consistent: recognition as the world’s greatest, toughest, most powerful, and most beloved man.
One way of tapping into the fears and resentments of millions of Americans, who were disillusioned by endless wars, was to promise to put America first, by withdrawing it from foreign entanglements – in trade, multinational institutions, and especially military conflicts. As he put it very recently: “I’m not, and I don’t want to be, the president of the world.”
But now he has stumbled onto the best way to achieve his goal of being applauded as a tough guy: military action. His efforts to portray himself as a great president have faltered, but as commander-in-chief he appears to have scored a big victory where it really matters to him: the mass media.
People may have grown sick of the wars unleashed by George W Bush, but the reaction to Trump’s Tomahawks even in the august New York Times has made one thing clear: when the commander-in-chief confronts an enemy abroad, people will support him, as though it were their patriotic duty. And if bombing an air base is a mark of moral leadership, questioning it is not just unpatriotic, but also immoral, as though one does not wish to do something about those poor children subjected to Assad’s poison gas.
Even if Trump’s Tomahawks won’t solve the conflicts in the Middle East, and even if they actually make matters worse, he has achieved an important victory at home. In the eyes of many critics, he now looks presidential. And he may have repaired, if only temporarily, a serious rift among the Republicans.
Indeed, some of Trump’s fiercest opponents have been neoconservatives, the same people who promoted Bush’s war in Iraq. They hated his promises to withdraw from foreign conflicts. Now they will probably rally around him.
Trump still has no strategy, not in the Middle East, and not in Asia, where North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, is doing his best to grab the news and provoke Trump by testing nuclear devices and long-range missiles. But Trump now knows what to do to be admired as a great leader.
A US aircraft carrier strike group is already on its way to the Korean Peninsula. An attack on North Korea, unlike a runway in Syria, could actually lead to nuclear war. But Trump’s moral dimension has been restored. It will be beautiful.
Ian Buruma, Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, is the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945