Last night’s attack on Syria was reassuring. That’s the word that was used by the New York Times this morning in its lead editorial, and it’s an appropriate word. After all the fear-mongering on the left that President Trump would listen to John Bolton and unilaterally blow the Syrian leaders to smithereens, what we witnessed instead was the mission advocated by General Mattis. Precise. Proportional. Relatively riskless. And anything but unilateral. (The Brits and French were also involved.) In short, it was the kind of mission that former President Obama would have been proud to have carried out, if only he could have summoned the guts to do so. It was a fine military response to the unconscionable use of chemical weapons.
This morning, I listened to the Pentagon briefing, which was delivered with a high level of transparency about the operation. Again, it was delivered in a way that would have made the Democrats proud if only their leader had carried it out. Shortly after the briefing was over, I tuned in to MSNBC, where Joy Reed was beginning her program. What I heard was predictable: mockery of Trump and the Syria operation. She and her guests mocked the build-up to the operation and then questioned the unambitious nature of the operation itself, including whether the President “wagged the dog” (i.e., engaged in military strikes purely to boost his own political popularity).
Clearly, to Ms. Reed and her guests, Republican Administrations are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they hadn’t given advance warning about military strikes in Syria, they would have been accused of risking nuclear war with the Russians. But since they did give such warning, they were mocked for allowing the Russians and the Syrians to save a fraction of the chemical weapons assets (i.e., the portion that can be easily moved). Similarly, if they had engaged in sustained, massive attacks to the infrastructure of the Syrian military capabilities, they would have been accused of risking the kind of military escalation that engulfed Bush Jr.’s Administration in Iraq. And yet, when they engaged in a precise, surgical strike against Syria’s largest chemical weapons facilities and nothing more, they were criticized for not doing enough to stop Assad.
In theory, Trump could cure breast cancer and bring peace to the Middle East and MSNBC hosts would still figure out a way to mock him. As someone who hates double standards and especially hates conduct that gives progressives a bad name, I’m embarrassed this morning.
So, allow me to praise the Administration for engaging in a measured and appropriate response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons last night. Allow me to praise the President for calling attention to just how monstrous Assad has been as the leader of the Syrian people, and for calling attention to how Russia and Iran have served as his enablers. And the next time someone cries "wag the dog" in response to a fully justifiable military action, consider the source. Full stop.
Having said that, the “Mission” has not been accomplished. The Mission ought to be dealing with the ongoing atrocity that has been engulfing Syria for years. That atrocity involves the use of illegal chemical weapons, to be sure, but far more than that, it involves the use of “legal” weapons by a bully regime against an innocent helpless populous. All this rhetoric – and it started with the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administration – about Syria’s use of chemical weapons and only its use of chemical weapons is making me think about how my own family was largely wiped out in the Holocaust. I don’t know how many of my great aunts and uncles were killed by bullets and how many were killed by Zyklon B gas, and do you know what? I don’t really care. Even if the Nazis had never thought to gas people in the showers, I’d still view them as genocidal monsters. And I would hate to hear their savage attacks on Jews and others dismissed as a mere “civil war.”
What Assad and his enablers are doing to the Syrian people with conventional weapons is itself worthy of the strongest possible rebukes. The “Mission” is not accomplished until we do whatever is sensibly in our power to respond to those weapons. For starters, we need to consider economic sanctions against those enabling powers. Next, we need to step up our willingness to accept refugees from Syria. And third, we need to speak honestly about the use of conventional weapons in Syria with the same language that we previously have used to speak about the use of chemical weapons. Maybe we should respond militarily against these conventional weapons, maybe not, but we should at least be honest about them.
You don’t need to use chemicals to be a monster. Monsters tend to use them when they can, but if properly deterred against such attacks, they can still behave like monsters. Assad has proven himself to belong in this category. And the entire world is responsible for reacting humanely to his behavior. Last night was a good start. Let’s acknowledge that fact, and then continue, with whatever means at our disposal, to accomplish this mission.