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Virgil: The Strike Against Syria: the Media vs. Trump and the Congressional Challenge Ahead

I. The Critics Rave

In case you hadn’t noticed, President Trump has enemies in the Main Stream Media.  And the April 6 strike on Syria hasn’t changed that.

 

On Friday night, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell speculated that Trump’s decision to order a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airfield was, in fact, the result of collusion with the Russians.

Yes, that’s right: O’Donnell suggested that Trump and Vladimir Putin worked together to have the United States attack Syria, a Russian ally.  The plot supposedly came together in in two steps: First, the Russians would persuade the Syrians to drop poison gas on civilians, and second, the Americans would then fire missiles on the Syrians.  And what was the purported point of all this murderous international coordination?  Why, to change the subject from the 2016 election-hacking investigation, of course.

O’Donnell admitted that he had no evidence—as in, none, whatsoever—for this accusation, but nevertheless, he insisted, “I raise it without assigning a statistical probability to it, I don’t know what it is.  I just know that it’s not zero.”

Virgil wonders: How does O’Donnell know that the probability is not, in fact, precisely zero?  Or, to put that question another way, what evidence does O’Donnell have for his allegation?  Answer: None.  One would think, amidst all the concern about “fake news,” that TV talking heads would be cautious about peddling evidence-free charges.

Moreover, one might further think that NBC, the parent company of MSNBC, would be especially sensitive to fakery.  After all, it was just a couple of years ago that NBC suffered the Brian Williams fake-news fiasco, and so the network should be demanding a higher standard of veracity—or at least some standard—from its employees.  But then, we should remember that the same disgraced Brian Williams is now an anchor at MSNBC.  His show, in fact, comes on just after O’Donnell’s.   So much for fighting fakeness.

Or course, the insinuation that Trump is secretly playing footsie with the Russkies is ironic, because one of the MSM’s favorite anti-Trump narratives is that the administration is thoroughly incompetent.  And yet all of a sudden, when it suits him, O’Donnell presumes that it has the Machiavellian skill—as well as, of course, the pure evil—to pull this off.

Revealingly, two days later, on April 9, a Washington Post story on O’Donnell’s segment—which conceded that assertion was “evidence-free”—was rated as “Most Read” in the Post.  Obviously, MSM audiences are hungering for the most anti-Trump stories they can find.

In the meantime, other MSM outlets, too, are spinning conspiracy theories.  In Politico, Philip Gordon, a former Obama National Security Council staffer, asks,  “Is Trump Wagging the Dog in Syria?”  “Wag the Dog,” of course, was the 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro that spun a tale of an entirely fictional war, conjured up by political consultants, for the electoral benefit of an embattled president.

For his part, Gordon—who not long ago reported to the notorious NSC chief Susan Rice—was happy to mix Hollywood and Washington without any proof:

It is hard to avoid wondering whether the purpose of the strikes was less to defend a red line that Trump had never supported than yet another effort by the president to distract the media’s attention and change the subject from his problems at home.  . . .  With his popularity falling to unprecedented lows for a new president, and major legislative goals on health care and immigration blocked in Congress or in the courts, it’s not hard to believe that Trump would take a step that would dominate media’s attention, win plaudits from many in his party and some key allies abroad, and might even have some substantive merit.

Virgil has to wonder how such a conspiracy-minded individual got his security clearance—or whether he should ever have it in the future.

Indeed, we can add this bit of sober reality to dog-wagging scenarios.  If the Trump administration were looking for a bogus incident somehow to change the subject, Thursday night was not the best time to do it.  And why not?  Because there was already a lot going on: The Chinese leader Xi Jinping was visiting Mar-a-Lago, and the Senate vote on Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination was taking place the next morning.  So a truly doggy diversion could have waited for a slower news day.

Okay, so that takes care of the anti-Trump conspiracy-mongering about the Syria strike—at least until the next conspiracy is mongered.

In the meantime, reacting to the news, others in the MSM were merely skeptical.  The New York Times, for example, wondered, “Was Trump’s Syria Strike Illegal?”  The newspaper’s answer was that the legalities were “murky and complicated.”

That same day, April 7, Politico was a tad more definitive in its supposition, headlining its piece, “Legality of Trump’s airstrikes disputed.”  The article quoted various lawyers and law professors saying, No, probably not legal.

As an aside, Virgil doesn’t recall the same instant spate of legal criticism when Bill Clinton expanded military operations in Somalia—who can forget “Blackhawk Down?”  Nor does he recall legal scholars being up in arms over Barack Obama’s many military operations in the Middle East, including the overthrow of an entire government in Libya.  (Yes, it’s amazing what a Nobel Peace Prize winner can get away with, while still maintaining his Man of Peace halo.)

Still, much of the MSM commentary on Trump in the wake of the Syria strike was positive, even if it was also sometimes strange in its unexpectedness.  For instance, on the morning after the attack, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria declared, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.”  This is amusing, because in the past, Zakaria has defined Trump in less-than-presidential terms; he has called him a “BS artist,” a “bull[bleeper],” and “a cancer on American democracy.”

A similar turnabout was evident at The Washington Post.  Its editorial page, which for two years has made manifest its loathing for Trump, declared on Saturday that the missile strike “was right as a matter of morality,” and added, “it could also yield a host of practical benefits.”

Here we can pause to make a point about the MSM commentariat: Yes, they are almost all Democrats and liberals, and yes, they generally hate Trump.  At minimum, they have sought to impugn him, even as many, at maximum, would love to impeach him.  Yet at the same time, on foreign policy issues, they are globalist.  That is, their instinct is always to “do more.”  That is, engage more, spend more—even fight more.  Thus the partial pause in the anti-Trump fusillade.

Furthermore, a great many Democratic politicos are on board with that same hard-edged globalist agenda: Former Massachusetts senator and Obama secretary of state John Kerry, to name one, declared himself to be “absolutely supportive” of the Syria strike.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, some GOPers are even harder-edged in their globalism.  These would be the neoconservatives, such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham.  Those two, in particular, have been fierce critics of Trump, and yet in the wake of Syria, both swung around, at least for the moment.  And as for neoconservative publications, such as The Weekly Standard, the reaction has been ecstatic.  Yet we shouldn’t assume that this newfound affection will last very long; as the neocons have made clear, their warm feelings are entirely dependent on Trump’s perceived hawkery.

Of course, elsewhere within the Republican Party, there are contrary voices: Sen. Rand Paul has been a vocal critic of the strike, as has been Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

Moreover, among populist-nationalist commentators, the reaction to the strike has been mostly negative, as anyone following the Twitter feeds of, for example, Ann Coulter or Laura Ingraham can readily observe.  Indeed, nationwide, there’s deep concern in Trump’s nationalist base.

Yet it’s impossible to reach any conclusion this soon.  And in the meantime, former Breitbart News senior national security editor Sebastian Gorka, now a top national-security aide in the White House, was quick to put the Syrian action into context; he told Breitbart London’s Raheem Kassam, on Breitbart News Daily on Sirius XM radio, that Syria’s use of gas warfare had forced the American reaction:

The strategic imperative is very clear.  These weapons not only are banned; they are being used against civilians.  That is a global problem.  We have sent a very clear message that when you do something as heinous, as evil, as using weapons of mass destruction against unarmed civilians, you will pay a penalty. That’s why it’s in the U.S. national security interest.

Yet at the same time, Gorka emphasized that the Trump administration knew better than to repeat recent past mistakes: “We are not interested in invading countries and occupying them . . . This is not the second Bush administration.”

 II. The Cloudy Future

By Virgil’s reckoning, the last U.S. president who scored a geopolitical success in the Middle East was George H. W. Bush.  That success, of course, was the victory of America and its many allies in Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 Gulf War.

Yet interestingly, that geopolitical success overseas failed to translate into political success here at home: In his 1992 re-election campaign, Bush was soundly defeated.  The victor that year, of course, was Bill Clinton, who focused on domestic issues, subtly highlighting the incumbent’s over-engagement in foreign affairs.

Since then, through the administrations of three presidents—Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama—it’s hard to think of a single American military initiative in the Middle East and its environs that has gone well.  That is, not Somalia, not Afghanistan, not Iraq, not Libya.

So what do these unhappy precedents say about Syria?  We can recall that Gorka was keen to emphasize that the Trump administration is not interested in any sort of “nation-building,” and yet even so, war-weary Americans must wonder what’s ahead.  It would seem that the answer is still, well, shrouded in fog—although of course, since there isn’t much fog in the arid Middle East, perhaps it’s more fitting to use the Arabic word for sandstorm, haboob.

So, are there are clues to be seen through the haboob?

Virgil has a suggestion: Watch the Congress. That is, on Capitol Hill, we have 535 political experts; no matter what one might think of them, they were all clever enough to get elected.  And right now, it’s a safe bet that each one of them is calculating his or her best angle on the question of the Syria strike.  Are they for it?  Against it?  In between?  Or nowhere to be found?

So watching where lawmakers line up, over time, will reveal much about whether the betting wisdom thinks that Trump policy in the Middle East is headed north—or south.

What we know for sure is that today, for the most part, legislators are playing their cards close to their chest.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, has been focused on the Gorsuch confirmation and little else—and perhaps he likes it that way.

Of course, legislators, if they’re interested, have a safe harbor: The Constitution.

In Article One, Section Eight, the language is explicit: It’s Congress that has the sole power to “declare war.”

One leading constitutionalist, of course, is Sen. Mike Lee of Utah; it was no surprise that he cited that foundational document when he declared, in the wake of the attack:

Anytime we send our young men and women into harm’s way, the President owes it to the American people to come to Congress and present a plan.  The Constitution says that in order to declare war, you have to go to Congress and get approval.  We want to hear the president’s plan and have the ability to debate it.

Indeed, even lawmakers not known for their constitutional fidelity are saying much the same thing; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, too, wants a Congressional debate.  In fact, she’s even calling for an immediate special session of the House, despite the fact that Congress is currently away on Easter recess.

Of course, as everyone knows, presidents in recent decades have been loath to ask Congress for a formal declaration of war—the last such request came from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941.

Why this subsequent presidential reluctance?  Perhaps because commanders-in-chief have been in a hurry, or perhaps because they weren’t sure that they’d be successful if they asked Congress—or perhaps they just didn’t want to be bothered.

Instead, for some of them, their preferred vehicle has been a lesser approval, such as the vaguely worded Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, which got us into Vietnam And sometimes, they sought no approval whatsoever—they just did it.

Interestingly, oftentimes, Members of Congress are okay with a president doing as he wishes on foreign military matters.  That is, many lawmakers know a sticky wicket when they see one, and so they are happy not to be asked to pick a side, yea or nay.  That is, if Congress isn’t consulted, then Members are free to position and re-position themselves on questions of conflict, according to the inevitably changing fortunes of war.

We might observe that it was way back in 2001, just days after 9-11, that Congress voted an Authorization of the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF).  That AUMF, which enabled operations in Afghanistan, is now nearly 16 years old.  And yet it has been used to underwrite military action just about anywhere and everywhere.

Yet here’s a loophole, through which many sitting lawmakers are happy to stride right through: Roughly three-fourths of today’s representatives and senators were not in Congress back in 2002, and so, of course, they never voted on the AUMF, pro or con.  Thus they have complete latitude as to what to say about military action; their fingerprints are nowhere to be found.

And one thing lawmakers do know is that casting a vote on war can have political consequences—dire political consequences.  We might recall that back in October 2002, George W. Bush asked Congress to authorize the use of force against Iraq.  Among the Democratic senators who voted for that authorization were John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and that aye vote came back to bite both of them.

Kerry, of course, was the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, and yet, because of his pro-war vote, even as Iraq was looking distinctly Mission: Not Accomplished, he was unable to capitalize on anti-war sentiment when he ran against Bush.  And in the 2008 Democratic primaries, the pro-war Clinton was ambushed from the left by an anti-war insurgent from Illinois.

Virgil has no idea where the Syria issue is headed.  And yet the U.S. Constitution, plus political experience, both say the same thing: Wherever Trump goes, he should seek to bring Congress with him.

By contrast, if he proceeds without Congress, then lawmakers are free to peel off anytime, in reaction to the latest headline. (And if the news is good, they can jump on the bandwagon; there’s nothing in the Constitution against opportunism.)

Yet as we have learned, in war, times can get tough.  Thus for the 45th president, as with any president, the go-it-alone road could prove to be a lonely road, indeed.

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