On the night U.S. armed forces dropped bombs on Syria, much of my country seemed to watch on TV from the safety of moral and intellectual detachment. We debated the irrelevant, shrugged our shoulders, ignored hard and inconvenient truths.
Our reaction was imbued with all that we know, or don’t know, about the president making the call, the confusion about where he stands, and the disconnect between his compassion for the plight of children there and the apparent lack of it for those families trying to escape that suffering to come here. Millions of Syrian refugees are looking for safe haven, with the number coming here, to the U.S. and Sacramento, growing, and the compassionate Trump is also the Trump who proposed a travel ban to close that door.
President Donald Trump ordered the launch of more than 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase purported to have carried out chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians. This was the kind of action Trump said he would never take as President. Let’s work through it:
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▪ Trump tweeted in 2013 that then-President Barack Obama needed congressional approval to attack Syria.
▪ Obama sought that approval and didn’t get it, and Trump joined the chorus of Republicans calling Obama weak for not containing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
▪ Obama eventually did bomb Syria while using the justification of attacking ISIS terrorists.
▪ Trump suggested on Twitter that Obama was only bombing Syria to prop up his approval numbers.
So what happened last week?
Trump bombed Syria as his own poll numbers have been plummeting. He bombed Syria the night before the release of a weak jobs report that would have been larger news but then was largely overshadowed.
Trump bombed Syria in violation of international law. As the New York Times reported: “The United Nations Charter, a treaty the United States has ratified, recognizes two justifications for using force on another country’s soil without its consent: the permission of the Security Council or a self-defense claim.” Permission was not sought, this bombing was not self defense.
Trump also didn’t get congressional approval for authorizing what used to be called an “act of war.” In 2013, Assad used chemical weapons against his people but Congressional Republicans refused to strike back when Obama was president. “Syria’s civil war isn’t our fight, but we have a stake in the outcome,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2013.
But now, with Trump in office, Ryan said: “These tactical strikes make clear that the Assad regime can no longer count on American inaction as it carries out atrocities against the Syrian people.”
Trump reportedly was moved by horrific footage of Syrian children gasping for air after being exposed to gas, allegedly by Assad’s forces. I watched the video for only a few moments before averting my eyes, so I imagine Trump also reacted with horror and compassion to scenes of children dying. Roughly 80 people died in the attack. But this is the same president who campaigned with untruths about refugees from Syria and elsewhere. Trump painted them as threats to American security. He essentially signaled to Assad, he didn’t care what happened to them. He falsely claimed that there was no process to screen refugees coming to America when in fact there is. He falsely claimed that “aren’t many” women and children among Syrian refugees coming to the U.S.
To arrive in the US, they first had to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. All prospective refugees must be facing a fear of persecution. Those referred by the United Nations are given priority by American officials, but the long process of approval must wind through the State Department, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. It takes up to two years.
And yet Trump spent his campaign railing about how “extreme vetting” of refugees was needed when it already exists. He has spent his early presidency seeking a travel ban from nations with large Muslim populations, including Syria. This order is still blocked by a federal judge.
If Trump was so moved by innocent kids being slaughtered in a six-year civil war, why not fast-track the process for Syrian refugee children to be admitted into the U.S? He has said nothing of the kind and is largely being given a pass.
Instead of criticizing Trump for attacking Syria on humanitarian grounds after seeking to block Syrian refugees, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria praised Trump’s Syria bombing as “the moment he became the President of the United States.” MSNBC anchor Brian Williams marveled at the “beauty” of the bombs dropped on Syria as the cameras rolled. This soft media coverage evoked the lack skepticism at the start of an Iraq War in 2002 that ultimately was waged on the false pretense of Iraq harboring “weapons of mass destruction.” We can’t make that mistake again. We can’t pretend that Trump is suddenly strong for dropping 59 bombs on Syria after he and others painted Obama as weak, despite the fact that Obama dropped 12,192 bombs on Syria in 2016, according to the McClatchy Washington Bureau.
There are no easy answers here, no easy fixes. Obama didn’t want to commit ground troops to fight in Syria and that was the right call, no matter how much Trump and others criticized him for being weak.
Are we headed for that war now under Trump, the same president who, according to the Washington Post, has made 367 false or misleading claims since taking office on Jan 20?
Do you trust Trump to make this call?
In the past, American presidents addressed the nation in some form after authorizing military attacks. Trump hasn’t and the lack of outrage among congressional leaders and prominent members is just as disturbing as the thought of a Trump empowered to make war on a whim without checks and balances.
If America really cared about humanitarian aid for Syria, creating an expedited path for refugees would be a place to start. But the president is opposed to that.
If America is going to war with Syria, then Trump must actually speak to Congress and the American people about sending young Americans to their deaths in combat.
In the meantime, I’m just an American citizen who has no idea what his country is doing or what it really stands for with Donald Trump in the Oval Office.