I wonder if, after some of his national security aides brief him about the latest developments in Syria, President Trump shakes his head and says, "Boy, nobody knew wars in the Middle East could be so complicated."
That, you'll recall, is what he said about health care, when in fact everyone, except for him, knew how complicated it is. But perhaps I'm being unfair. There are reasons to think that Trump already had a sense of how complicated the Middle East can be, which is why as a candidate he expressed much more of a distaste for military adventurism there than your average Republican.
Just last week, Trump declared his intention to bring all of our troops home from Syria, where they have been working to eradicate ISIS. "I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home," he said. But then came an apparent chemical weapons attack in the Syrian city of Douma, in which dozens of civilians were killed.
Trump took to his favorite medium to express his outrage. "Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria," he tweeted on Sunday. "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!" Now that Trump has given Bashar al-Assad a nickname, you know he's serious.
But something interesting happened in the tweet Trump sent eight minutes later. "If President Obama had crossed his stated Red Line In The Sand, the Syrian disaster would have ended long ago!" he said. "Animal Assad would have been history!" He seemed to be saying that when Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, Obama should have launched a military action to overthrow him. Which is strange, since it was exactly a year ago that Trump himself responded to another chemical attack in Syria by bombing an airfield—not trying to overthrow Assad. That bombing was supposed to send a message of strength and resolve, deterring any future use of chemical weapons.
It obviously didn't work.
Despite his words, it's hard to believe that the sight of poisoned civilians will produce true outrage in Trump, since it's not as though he's some kind of humanitarian. He has proposed bringing back torture and murdering the families of suspected terrorists, and it was recently reported that when he was shown video of a CIA drone strike in which the agency waited until the target walked away from a house where his family was staying before killing him, the president's response was "Why did you wait?"
Ironically, it's precisely because the images of people killed by chemical weapons are less gruesome than those showing the victims of bombs and bullets that they appear on the news to convince us of the horror of the use of those weapons. If a Syrian child is torn to pieces by a conventional bomb and a photojournalist snaps a picture of the result, that image will not appear in any mainstream news outlets. It's because the victims of chemical weapons are intact that their dead bodies may be shown on the news or in the paper, producing universal condemnation.
But Assad didn't need to use chemical weapons to reach historic heights of brutality. Estimates of the death toll since the Syrian civil war began generally run between 400,000 and 500,000. An incredible 12 million Syrians have fled their homes, with six million displaced within the country and another six million becoming refugees elsewhere, five million in the Middle East and another million in Europe.
And what exactly does Donald Trump want to do about it, apart from closing off America to all but a handful of refugees? It's plain that he has no taste for an extended American presence there, nor much interest in seeing Assad fall. After all, if Iraq taught us anything it's that you can remove a vicious dictator only to see him replaced by chaos and terrorism. Trump's preference runs more toward some exciting kinetic operations in which we "bomb the shit out of 'em," whoever they may happen to be, and then we return home so as not to have to deal with all the complicated stuff that comes after.
But if he does that now it will seem awfully familiar. No one will miss the parallel with what happened a year ago: a quick operation that delivers an almost entirely symbolic blow, after which Trump can tell himself he acted decisively and taught Assad a lesson but absolutely nothing on the ground changes. I'd be interested to hear why he (or anyone else) thinks that doing the same thing this time will produce a different result.
The trouble is that no one has any better ideas. We aren't going to overthrow Assad and occupy Syria, that's for sure. Some bombing might make us feel like we responded but it won't accomplish anything. So what then?
This is one rare occasion when you can say that while Donald Trump doesn't have any ideas, nobody else does either.