Last night, the United States – on President Donald Trump’s order – bombed Syria following the use of chemical weapons on civilians by Bashar al-Assad. “That attack on children… had a big effect on me,” Trump said in a press conference on Wednesday. “My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much.” Suddenly, Trump feels a “responsibility” to the Syrian people, and the media is lauding his change of heart.
It’s tempting to believe that the President of the United States is a decent human being, moved by pictures of dead children and compelled to act by breeches of international law and human rights. Yet nothing about Trump’s long, well documented career indicates that he’s capable of compassion, let alone towards persecuted Muslims.
I don’t buy Trump’s false conversion. He has routinely tweeted that the President needs congressional approval to use military force, something he didn’t seek. He has, until now, demonstrated isolationist instincts that preclude America acting in its traditional role of world police. He has banned Syrian refugees from entering the US and demonised Muslims on the campaign trail. Considering literally everything Trump has said and done over the past several years, forgive me if it’s hard to fathom that he’s acting entirely altruistically.
It’s a truism in American politics that military action can improve a president’s poll numbers and Trump needs Americans to forget his disastrous defeat on Obamacare repeal, which showed that the deal maker couldn’t even deal with his own party. It cast serious doubt on his ability as a leader and made him look politically weak. There’s no better way to remind the world you’re president than bombing another country. Anyone who questioned his leadership ability on healthcare will suddenly see the President doing the most presidential thing he can do – exercising American military might.
This is also a great way of distracting from the probe into Trump’s ties with Russia. It seems every other day a new secret meeting between a Trump campaign operative and a Russian official is uncovered, and it’s looking increasingly like there was some nefarious collusion between Trump and the Russians in the 2016 election. Trump desperately needs to shirk the label of Siberian candidate. There are few better ways to demonstrate you aren’t in Putin’s pocket than to bomb his only Middle Eastern ally over his protestations.
The President needs a win. His poll numbers are historically low; no president has ever polled so badly so early in his term. By virtually every account this has been a disastrous first 100 days. Trump recognises that he needs to change the news cycle and generate some positive coverage. This is a tried-and-true way of doing just that.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Trump’s actions, but of his motives. We must do something in Syria, and it’s high time we took out Assad’s airfields. But if Trump really wanted to help the Syrian people, especially the children he saw gassed to death, he’d drop this abhorrent Muslim ban and open American borders to thousands of Syrian refugees. He would, like British Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott advocated on last night’s BBC Question Time, push for international sanctions on Russia until they stopped propping up the Assad regime. He would spearhead an international effort to remove Assad and defeat the so-called Islamic State by means of a UN resolution and military effort.
Trump doesn’t care about the Syrian people, he cares about ratings – and right now his ratings suck. Instead of congratulating him on making the right decision for the wrong reasons, we should continue pressuring him to do more to alleviate this humanitarian crisis, and that’s going to take more than air strikes. Until that happens, it’s hard not to view these air strikes as nothing more than a political gambit.
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