Sarah Kendzior is a commentator based in St. Louis, Mo., who writes about politics, the economy and media.
A week ago, the Trump administration was in trouble. Its health-care plan failed, the President’s ratings were at a record low and more nefarious campaign dealings with Russia had been revealed. The LA Times ran a viral, multipart series outlining that Mr. Trump is an authoritarian leader who lies compulsively and is unfit to hold office.
But by the end of the week, an LA Times columnist awarded Trump’s week a “B” for a job well done. That job, of course, was bombing Syria.
When the media cheers Mr. Trump’s bombing, seemingly forgetting the policy failures that preceded those explosions, we’re all in danger. He is a man who craves praise – and if he receives it through brute force, he’ll keep doing it.
Case in point: On Thursday, Mr. Trump dropped something called “the mother of all bombs” – a bomb so large it’s never been used in combat – in eastern Afghanistan.
He seeks praise for this – and hopes that the smoke will hide all of his many transgressions.
Flailing leaders, particularly of the more authoritarian bent, frequently engage in military actions to divert from domestic disasters and to rally the country around a unifying cause.
That cause, in Syria, is stopping Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. That is noble in theory, though it does not appear the strike did anything to help it. The operation itself raises questions: instead of consulting the U.S. Congress, Mr. Trump consulted Russia in advance of the strike, while Russia, it turns out, knew of Mr. al-Assad’s chemical-weapons attack in advance. Mr. al-Assad, meanwhile, continues to assault Syrians with impunity.
Mr. Trump does have a doctrine, but it is not about Syria: it’s about Trump. The Trump Doctrine should alarm you not only because of what it means for the Syrian conflict, but because of how it will be applied to other countries – in particular, nuclear adversary North Korea.
“When you’re a star,” Mr. Trump infamously proclaimed in the Access Hollywood video leaked last summer, “you can do anything.” This included, infamously, grabbing women by the genitals, simply because he believed he could.
In Mr. Trump’s mind, the question to ask is not “Why?” but “Why not?” Alarmingly, his boasts of sexual assault are not different in mindset than his statements on nuclear weapons. “If we have them,” he asked, “why can’t we use them?”
The obvious reason not to use nuclear weapons – because it is a calamitous move from which there is no point of return – does not bother the President. From the moment he ordered Syria’s strikes from his Florida golf resort, Mr. Trump was proclaimed “presidential,” with pundits gushing over his made-for-TV war. (This was the second time Trump was widely proclaimed presidential; the first, after a speech to Congress, was tampered in less than a day by revelations that Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was implicated in the Russian interference affair.)
Given the scandals that surround his administration, Mr. Trump’s “presidential” high may not last. But it is likely that Mr. Trump, who obsesses with the ratings of everything from his inauguration crowd to The Apprentice, craves another hit of praise. He has learned that military action is a surefire means to media approval. The metric that matters for Mr. Trump is not whether a policy is good, but whether it makes him popular. And that is an extraordinarily dangerous situation for the United States and the world.
Though Syria dominated policy discussion last week, the country to watch is North Korea. Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ominous, terse statement that the United States was through discussing the rogue state. But this followed multiple proclamations that the U.S intends to launch a pre-emptive strike; a statement from Mr. Tillerson that diplomacy has “failed”; influential Trump backer Robert Mercer’s claim that nuclear radiation made the Japanese healthier; the gutting of the State Department and its diplomatic corps; a billion-dollar increase for nuclear weapons in the draft budget; and a potential plan to place nuclear weapons in South Korea.
These are dangerous decisions. The Doomsday Clock, which measures how close the world is to annihilation, moved to reflect its increasing likelihood after Mr. Trump was elected for a reason. In North Korea, Mr. Trump faces the similarly erratic Kim Jong-un, whose own rhetoric and actions on nukes has grown increasingly aggressive in recent months.
Mr. Trump, obsessed with nuclear weapons since the 1980s, now knows that military incursions win him praise. His next move may not be firing missiles into a mostly empty airspace. Remember, when you are a star, you can do anything – even the unthinkable.Report Typo/Error
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