Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media
At a July, 2016, campaign rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump defended Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘Oh, he’s using gas!’” he said mockingly. “He was a bad guy, really bad guy, but you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good.”
The compliment was not an anomaly: Mr. Trump likes dictators. He liked them during the campaign – when he defended Moammer Gadhafi and quoted Benito Mussolini – and he liked them after he became President, lavishing praise on Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, and, of course, Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Trump’s condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is both disingenuous and self-serving. His sudden concern over chemical weapons is as contrived as it was last year, when under a similar firestorm of scandal Trump launched strikes into Syria in an operation that did nothing for Syrians but plenty for Mr. Trump, winning him praise from gullible pundits who deemed him “presidential” overnight.
Within days, Mr. al-Assad went back to slaughtering civilians and Mr. Trump went back to pathologically lying.
Mr. Trump’s troubles now are more of a legal than a public-relations matter, as the probe of special counsel Robert Mueller bears down on his closest associates, including his campaign managers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and his long-time lawyer Michael Cohen. The tidal wave of revelations about the President’s shady deeds is so massive and ominous that it cannot be stopped by a Middle East incursion – unless that incursion transforms into a full-fledged regional war drawing in Iran, Russia, Israel, Turkey and, as a result, the rest of the world.
The appointment of new national security adviser John Bolton, a Bush-era warmonger who regrets that the United States did not replicate its destructiveness elsewhere, makes world war a real possibility. Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolton’s outlook is different even from that of other hawks in Trump’s cabinet, especially Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has resisted pressure to escalate the conflict.
General Mattis worries the administration lacks strategy – an understatement given Mr. Trump’s reckless and threatening tweets toward various world leaders and the gutting of the State Department. This week, Mr. Trump lost four of his national security advisers in three days, making it questionable whether Gen. Mattis himself will survive the Bolton shake-up. If he departs, foreign policy will be shaped by the bloodlust and autocratic ambitions of Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolton as well as the anti-Muslim bias which they share with newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
This spells more disaster for Syrians, who have endured horrific conditions for seven years, to the collective shame of the world. International bodies have failed to stop Mr. al-Assad from starving, torturing, murdering, imprisoning and gassing his own people. It is understandable that some foreign affairs analysts and Syrians cautiously applauded Friday night’s strikes by the United States and its allies, which were meant to decimate Mr. al-Assad’s ability to carry out chemical attacks.
That is a move that needed to be carried out years ago, and it is unclear whether last night Western forces succeeded. But even if it did, without a coherent military and diplomatic follow-up strategy enacted by rational leaders, the strikes will not affect Mr. Mr. al-Assad’s ability to brutalize civilians through conventional means, and it will not reduce the massive crisis that has left millions of Syrians dead, homeless, and living in perpetual fear. Mr. Trump has so far greeted this humanitarian crisis with apathy and malice, prohibiting Syrians from entering the United States and labeling refugees as terrorists.
At this point, every choice made regarding Syria is a choice about the degree of loss, not the prevention of it: loss of life, loss of freedom, loss of international stability. But those are not the sorts of losses that concern Mr. Trump. He worries only about losing money and political power, which Syria complicates due to Mr. Trump’s dependence on Russia. As displayed in his contradictory tweets this week – in which he both threatens Russia and begs for their friendship – Mr. Trump is simultaneously trying to appease the Kremlin and present a toughness toward Mr. Putin that contradicts his previous deference.
Suffice it to say, none of these actions have anything to do with aiding Syrians or stopping Mr. al-Assad. They are about Mr. Trump’s own deadly calculus – self-destruction as he faces legal jeopardy, or world destruction as an attempt at distraction, with Mr. Bolton and possibly Mr. Putin as his enablers. The most we can hope for is that something, somehow, will accidentally go right.