Which Country Shall We Bomb Today?

Bombing campaigns, once begun, have a way of carrying their own momentum.

Four days after the United States launched missile strikes against a Syrian Army airbase in Homs, the leadership of “the resistance” in Congress has shown its true colors. Regarding this new stage in an undeclared war, over which there has been little chance for debate, there is strong unity on the justness of the bombing. Trump was swift to act, and his erstwhile critics exhibited equal alacrity in praising his actions. Among the unreservedly pleased were the Democratic Party leaders in the Senate and House (Schumer and Pelosi), while the pleased-but concerned-over-future strategy took the lion’s share of the rest of the Senate (everyone from Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to Jon Tester of Montana). The left, independent or otherwise, was breathtakingly diffident, with Sanders and Warren issuing weak statements condemning Assad’s chemical attack and expressing misgivings over the possibility of escalation. There were only five straightforward voices of opposition, among whom were Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, long in the process of defining herself against the President; and, more surprisingly, the tedious Tim Kaine, who had previously supported military action in Syria.

What explains the weakness of the opposition in what is otherwise the most polarized Congress in modern political history? Part of the answer is most of them really like war. It gives their lives meaning. The awfulness of the chemical attack made many politicians (and, for that matter, journalists) conclude that something should happen, and the only something they can conceive of is war: as vacuous a strategic calculation as exists. But another part is that the polarization owes less to ideology than to angling for advantage in conditions of tightly contested control over government. In thrall to the security establishment bona fides of Trump’s cabinet, Democrats in Congress have ceded whatever misgivings they once had (if they ever had them) in order to maintain their chances at getting a congressional majority in 2018—which, they assume, would not be helped by opposing the President on critical matters of war. Having spent the campaign season darkly warning that the volatile Trump should not get his hands on the nuclear codes, Democrats folded at the first moment that his military ambitions could be debated. Hitherto frenzied with the cynical work of trying to nail Trump on his Russia connections, which rests in part on their longing to siphon off lingering cold warriors in his base, they were left speechless when Trump bombed Russia’s ally. A further result is that the one arena where the public can even conceivably raise the question has been lost. Having abandoned their warmaking powers, Congress has also ceded the willingness of representative government to argue over war.

The only place debate has taken place has been in the media, albeit in a frustratingly narrow and limited way. Much criticism has focused on the rapture with which liberals greeted Trump’s actions. Following the cavalcade of panegyrics to Trump and his newfound sagacity, there has been an equally memorable procession of public disgust and nausea. Among the highlights was Fareed Zakaria arguing that Trump “became President” the evening he ordered the strike and “struck a blow against evil,” eliciting Jeremy Scahill’s interpretation that Zakaria “would have sex” with the missiles if he could.

But however dismal and predictable the sight of “resisters” turning into lickspittle collaborators, there is little consensus on the actions themselves, and what they represent. It is a feature of America’s unyielding narcissism that much “news analysis” has been devoted to how these attacks affect the standing of this dangerously entitled country and its vile President. There is no other country in the world whose citizens wake up wondering which country their leader will bomb next—and what those bombs will do for said leader’s approval rating. But because the consequences of American warmaking are mostly deeply felt outside the US, it bears wondering what these attacks will likely do.

The mistake would be to think the missiles represent a simple continuation of US involvement. They do not. The sense of shock is real and has justifications. Critics on the left were quick to remind people that the US had dropped thousands of bombs on Syria since 2014. Not one of those bombs was directed officially at the military capacity of Bashar al-Assad. US military and covert activity has been entirely directed against portions of the Syrian rebels—the Islamic State, above all—and toward assisting and supplying other rebel groups, such as the Kurds in and around Rojava. For Trump’s part, the move to launch missiles undoubtedly came from desires to project power and appear decisive, and little more. Still, however symbolic and self-protecting, his actions have changed the ongoing calculus and launched the US into uncharted territory. Signals coming from his cabinet, albeit mixed—Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson offering somewhat conflicting statements—now suggest that removing Assad has become an explicit goal of the administration. Trump’s cabinet may ultimately shy away from devoting themselves to that goal in earnest. But bombing campaigns, once begun, have a way of carrying their own momentum. The fact of already existing US involvement should be a way of distinguishing this act from others to which it has been compared. Clinton launched missiles against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 after the bombing of a US embassy in East Africa; but the US was not at war in those countries at the time, and they did not lead directly to further war.

The most Trumpian aspect of the missile strikes was the narrow gap between Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack and Friday’s retaliation—the speed, in other words, with which the actions were taken. Foreign Policy’s Micah Zenko has noted that the lack of actual deliberation is unprecedented. Retaliations to which it has been compared—such as Clinton’s missile attack—have significantly larger timeframes between offense and revenge. After discovering an alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George H.W. Bush while he was traveling in Kuwait, Clinton took seventy-eight days to strike Iraq in 1993; with Shayrat, where US targets were not even attacked, Trump took two. This is not to defend those previous actions, but rather to suggest that there is a coherence, a tightening, between the media embrace of Trump’s decisiveness and the speed of that decisiveness, which are in turn correlated with the disappearing space for debate over growing American involvement in Syria (to say nothing of Yemen and other theaters of cruelty). The more swiftly the executive branch acts, the more stunned the public and its representatives become. Calls by Congress to submit future actions to Congress are made half-heartedly and go unheeded, as representatives fall over themselves in their bloodlust and enthusiasm for decisive action, even prior to forcing the space for a vote. This is the special mood of the present moment, derived from the interdependence of congressional fecklessness, media war spectacle, and years of power accruing unchecked to the executive branch. There is a strong likelihood that future actions—even if it is unclear what they will be—will rely on a similar combination of speed and decisiveness.

Not that the mere separation of powers and veneration of constitutional guarantees will change decades of American aggression. If the US will continue to refuse to debate the endless “war on terror,” it is up to the antiwar movement, long in arrears, to force the issue. Trump offers an opportunity. Obama entered office promising to end the two wars his administration inherited. He left having failed to do so, adding five more wars in the process. The consent he had engendered was partly due to the fact that he deliberated in the public’s place; his own wisdom was to substitute for the public’s. With the loathsome Trump, the mask is off, and the military establishment’s stubborn persistence is plain. But there is a danger too, in focusing on Trump. Any reference to a “Trump Doctrine,” let alone handwringing over the lack of one, obscures the extent of continuity between Trump and Obama; and between Obama and the Presidents before him. Can the US be made to recognize that it is trapped in an endless cycle of warmaking, subject to no public oversight or scrutiny, with little to show for it besides a panoply of failing states and legions of dead? The Authorization for Use of Military Force that passed with spellbinding unanimity after September 11 has permitted the growth of a war so geographically unbound and endless that even bringing another bill to the floor might not stop the President. Democrats who have been pushed to the left on healthcare and the minimum wage must also be challenged on their addiction to military belligerence. Failing this, an antiwar movement may have to consider other means of escalation.

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