Monday, April 10, 2017

Tragedy and Farce in Syria

Airstrikes launched against Syria by the Trump administration on April 6 prove Marx's adage about history transpiring first as tragedy, then as farce. The Obama White House's indecision and passivity in the face of the Syrian crisis were an excruciatingly protracted tragedy. For Obama's "red line" to be enforced by a man who has in all other ways disgraced and discredited the office of the presidency is so absurd that to call it "farce" is completely inadequate.

Those on all parts of the political spectrum who grieve at the damage Trump is doing to our Republic will no doubt be inclined to condemn this new Syria policy.  That inclination will be strengthened by the undeniable fact that Trump's motives are suspect and the politics of this policy malodorous. It is no coincidence that Trump has transgressed upon Russian strategic interests just when he most needs to distance himself from Moscow, and seeks the luster of a "war leader" just as his approval ratings hit historic lows.

That being noted, it is nonetheless true that, like the proverbial broken clock, Trump has stumbled upon the right course of action in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. To understand why this is so one need only contemplate the motives of Assad in murdering his own people with sarin gas. There are only two real possibilities in this regard.

The first, a scenario that will be favored by the conspiracy-minded, is that the Assad regime (presumably at the behest of Moscow) launched the sarin gas attack last week to provide Trump with a pretext to "wag the dog." Though appealingly plausible, this scenario is highly unlikely for many reasons. The Assad regime is engaged in a fight for its life, it has little motive to take potentially fatal risks to provide Donald Trump with political cover. The perceived possibility that chemical weapons might be used is a strategic asset Assad would be loath to part with, and any military action on the part of the US will boost morale among the rebels in ways that will materially degrade Damascus's strategic advantage. The same caveats apply when we think of Russia's perspective. Even if we assume that Moscow views Trump as an asset that it wants to protect, Putin has little cause to expend political capital in this way. Moscow faces dissent at home, it can hardly afford to risk being "humiliated" by the US in the eyes of its own people simply to save Donald Trump's bacon.

Occam's Razor dictates that Bashar al-Assad had a different motive in using chemical weapons against his own people. Expressions of disengagement and disinterest on the part of the Trump White House had left the Assad regime feeling that light could be seen at the end of the tunnel leading to a final military resolution of the Syrian civil war. Last week's sarin gas attack was thus a "test balloon," launched in the expectation that it would elicit no response from the US or its allies, and that such a contingency would create terror and chaos among anti-government forces. If the populations among whom the rebels live became persuaded that the Assad regime was about to unleash mass-murder on a scale that even this brutal civil war has not yet seen, the purchase of rebel forces in their current strongholds might become untenable. That was an outcome worth risking blowback from committing such a heinous war crime.

Because this was most likely the motive of Assad's gas attack, it required a response. However minimal the damage done to Assad's forces may have been from Thursday's air strikes, they sufficed to violently commit the U.S. to the proposition that Damascus must not use chemical weapons. Assad understands how politics works- he knows that another gas attack in the future will force the Trump administration to respond with greater destructiveness or risk crippling political embarrassment at home. Therefore, if they have done nothing else of value, the air strikes in Syria have made it highly unlikely that chemical weapons will be used again by the Assad regime. Though that is an admittedly tenuous benefit, it is still real.

If Donald Trump's leadership remains true to form, this military action will not produce a coherent or effective policy in response to the ongoing crisis of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the risks entailed by any military action cannot help but make one wish that a steadier hand was at the tiller. Still, in this one instance Trump has achieved an at least minimally positive impact. If he garners unearned political capital from this act, the blame unfortunately lies with President Obama. Obama left open the opportunity for Donald Trump to distinguish himself from his predecessor with this display of "decisiveness."  Though this is bitter farce, it does proffer one clear lesson for those who are paying attention: if and when the White House is again occupied by a leader worthy of the presidency, he or she will have to chart a course between the dysfunctional inaction of Barack Obama in Syria and the reckless adventurism of George W. Bush in Iraq.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Donnie and the Nihilists

I cannot believe I was alone in feeling cognitive dissonance while listening to the testimony of former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. As Watts explained:

[T]he reason active measures (viz., Russian hacking and propaganda) have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents...He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claims that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News… all the way up until the election. He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen… So, part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same line.

          Watts was making a point so obvious that it should have been the driving message of every credible political and cultural leader on any part of the political spectrum for the last year or more: America was made exceptionally vulnerable to the narratives fabricated by Russian intelligence because these narratives were broadcast and lent credence by the man who held the nomination of the Party of Lincoln. For it to take a special Senate hearing to give robust voice to this observation seems incredible at first, but on second reflection the reason for this circumstance is clear.

As cynical as we have become, as widespread as disenchantment and malaise have grown, we have yet to encounter a wholly values-free candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Even those who most violently abhor Hillary Clinton, for example, would be forced to admit that one could list a set of values that she consistently at least desires to appear to hold. She has allowed her political ambitions to be constrained by the norms of a larger system, as when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama for the ostensible sake of party unity or the election to Donald Trump in deference to the integrity of the electoral process.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is something new. Whatever norm or value he seems to have upheld in one instance (as, for example, when he said gracious things about his opponent on election night) he has violated in another (for example, tweeting without evidence that his predecessor, the nation's first African-American president, was a felon). Outside the interests of his close family (and even that is something of a gray area), it is impossible to determine what might be truly sacred to him beyond the gratification of his own ego.

Herein lies one of the greatest dangers of the Age of Trump. The checks and balances in our system are robust, but their efficacy ultimately rests upon a minimum threshold of commitment to the principles of our founding documents. Our constitutional order is well-equipped to deal with greed, hunger for power, cravenness, extremism, and other politically dysfunctional proclivities. But it is not well-prepared to confront nihilism. An individual unconstrained by loyalty to the most fundamental ideals of the system or even the most basic institutional imperatives can move unchecked by the infrastructure of the state, because the state is designed to presume a minimal assent to its own legitimacy on the part of its operatives.

It is as if in the transition from Obama to Trump, the laws of physic have changed, dissolving the gravitational forces that hold the Executive together. When, for example, the Acting Attorney General brought the White House Counsel the extraordinary news that the National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was susceptible to blackmail by a foreign power, the system was prepared for almost any response from President Trump. Contrition, defensiveness, alarm, evasion- all of these would have fallen within the range of reaction that officials in various agencies and branches of government could understand and engage. Total inertia, expressing a complete lack of concern for both the present crisis and the functional credibility of the White House as a whole, fell completely outside of the institutional logic that animates the machinery of state.

The leak of classified information to the press in the face of this conundrum was an intuitively sensible solution, but one that fell outside of the parameters of the regular operation of government, and that created new opportunities for the derailment of the machinery of state. It has been remarkable to watch the White House complain about leaks and improper surveillance on the one hand while it simultaneously lies about its members' contact with Russian officials and works to undermine the credibility of the House Intelligence Committee on the other. The idiom of the Trump White House persists in a realm light-years beyond garden-variety hypocrisy. It is the language of a topsy-turvy world in which Rhyme and Reason have been exiled and no gnomon of value can be anchored in the shifting sands of obfuscation and distortion.

Much has been written comparing Donald Trump to figures from history. Is he a latter day Mussolini? A reality-TV version of Huey Long? With his observation that shooting someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue would not spoil his image among his supporters, Trump perhaps hit upon the nearest analogue for his political persona in the American past. In his nihilistic disregard for the values and logic of the system he serves, Trump most resembles that other famous New Yorker, Aaron Burr. Indeed, the Trump presidency might be deemed "Aaron Burr's Revenge," in that the same electoral college that denied Burr the presidency has paid out in victory for his historical doppelganger just over two centuries later. Unless an alert citizenry can hold our leaders accountable and defend the integrity of the institutions that are our shared legacy, this time the murder that Burr gets away with may not be that of an individual, but of the system as a whole.