It was only a matter of time before Donald Trump led America into another pointless, brutal conflict overseas. The only surprise is the speed with which he did it; most presidents would wait until they were in much more dire domestic straits before giving into the instinct to prop up their popularity against a pile of foreign corpses. Trump, however, started his presidency with his approval ratings already in the toilet; he had nowhere to go but down, and proceeded to go there with alacrity. So we find ourselves, barely three months removed from Trump’s inauguration, ramping up America’s aggressive and senseless policy of bombshell diplomacy in the Middle East.
Reactions to Trump’s bombing of Syrian airbases have been remarkably broad, displaying some profoundly strange rifts in what used to be a generally predictable political landscape before the country elected a rudderless reality-show host to the presidency. Mainstream Republicans have never met a saturation-bombing of brown people they didn’t like, but some of Trump’s fringe support from the newly branded ‘alt-right’ is fading because they tend to be isolationist rather than interventionist and would prefer he use Tomahawk missiles against East St. Louis instead of Aleppo. Democrats are undergoing something of a crisis of conscience: the centrists tend to line up behind any kind of military intervention in the delusional belief that massive state violence is an effective humanitarian aid, while liberals seem like they’re against it because it’s Trump doing the bombing instead of Hillary Clinton.
The media, of course, have opened up their arms and their mouths to take in every bit of jingoistic nonsense the government can feed them (19 of the 20 largest newspapers in the country were in favor of the bombing, effortlessly recreating their reactions to the invasion of Iraq), and ‘mavericks’ like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have dropped their trousers to receive their own injections of patriotism. This is less disheartening than the liberals who have used the attack as a weapon against leftists, with only the angle differing depending on who was wielding it: some just tried to reframe it as another aspect of Trump’s highly compromised relationship with Vladimir Putin, peddling all kinds of conspiratorial nonsense to ‘prove’ that launching air raids on a Russian client state is a distraction to hide the president’s close ties to Russia. Others tried to imply that an opposition to American military force is the same thing as lending moral approval to the brutality of the Assad regime, as if one cannot oppose indiscriminate bombing without coddling a dictator — another familiar refrain from the Iraq years. Even the tankies got in on the act, insisting that condemning the bombing while criticizing Assad was itself an act of imperialism.
The hottest take of all, naturally, came from the devoted fans of Ms. Clinton, who first insisted that their dear Sister Hillary would never have engaged in such recklessly dangerous behavior. When reminded that, as Secretary of State, she launched the devastating war against Yemen on behalf of Saudi Arabia that has produced so much human misery, and that she had herself called for bombing Syrian airbases hours before Trump issued his command, the narrative changed: sure, she may have done that, but she wouldn’t have been so horrible on domestic issues. This is a curious argument, to be sure, akin to saying that both would have burned your house down but only one would have shit on their own floor first, but we live in curious times.
Regardless, the whole show has been accompanied by an explosion of historical ignorance at a time when political memory is a crucial and dwindling resource. Those who favor the Putin-as-eminence–grise approach have chosen to interpret perfectly ordinary behavior (the imperial courtesy, for example, of America warning Russia beforehand that we were preparing to demolish some of its rental property, or the entirely predictable incompetence and ineffectuality of our military strikes) as further evidence of conspiracy. The natural authoritarians, of whom there are uncountable numbers in this land of cop-lovers and soldier-humpers, will tut at any moral objection to bombing a sovereign nation because after all, this Assad is a dreadful man, and we cannot allow such dreadful men to govern unless they are a client state or are powerful enough to oppose us. And the middle-of-the-roaders and centrists, the embracers of respectability politics for whom the only acceptable answer to the question of “when?” is “not now”, will use it as an excuse for why we can no longer pursue such frivolities as universal health care, free college, or a livable minimum wage.
Although one tries to be cynical in this as all things, the speed with which we have forgotten our previous missteps in the region is rather upsetting. The awkward and bloody stumbles made by Barack Obama, in conjunction with the Clinton State Department, seem like a distant, barely-recalled memory, and the savage lessons of the Iraq invasion — so similar in build-up, so identical in excuses — may well have taken place contemporaneous to the Battle of the Somme. We will comfort ourselves that we have the backing of such celebrated lovers of human rights and democracy as Turkey, Israel, and the House of Saud. Our failure to hold pundits and journalists accountable for the miserable failures they committed in the past will mean we once again coo breathlessly as they cheerlead us into another humanitarian disaster. And bombs will follow drones, and starvation will follow devastation, and when the next terrorist atrocity takes place, we will ask for the millionth time how it possibly could have happened.
At this moment, there are those who will ask: if you oppose this latest act of imperial aggression, what’s your solution? They will dare to inquire, with nary a scrap of historical analysis as to how Syria wound up in this miserable state to begin with, what you did to stop the civil war, if you don’t think bombing the villain Assad will do the trick. I don’t recommend engaging, but if you do, you need say nothing. Point, merely, to a map of the world; and ask to be shown a country in which American military intervention, of which there has been no shortage in the last 72 years, has brought an end to oppression, or resulted in the uplift of a people, or has led to anything other than immiseration and death. And when you are done, place another bloody thumbprint east of Lebanon and north of Iraq; and then cast your eyes towards Iran and prepare to hear the same challenge again.