Trump Enforces Obama’s Red Line

by Jonah Goldberg
The strike on Syria is the single best proof that Trump has no overriding commitment to any ideological position — and I say that as someone who supports the strike.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (particularly the caretaker of Camp David, who must feel like the Maytag repairman watching the goings-on at Mar-a-Lago),

Well, this’ll be interesting.

After Thursday night’s attack on Syria, the conventional wisdom congealed faster than the chalupa sauce in Michael Moore’s chest hair.

Sorry, this isn’t really a topic for strident juvenilia, but I know that’s one of the things that puts digital asses in the virtual seats.

Let me start over.

I think Thursday night’s attacks are both less and more important than the rapidly forming conventional wisdom holds. This is a convoluted way of saying I see it a bit differently from some folks. And since I’m on a tight schedule, let me do it bullet-point style:

I think the foreign-policy consequences of the strike are likely to be less consequential than the domestic ones. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already said, quite emphatically, that the strikes don’t suggest any change in our overall strategy:

“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status,” [Tillerson] added. “I think it does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line and cross the line on violating commitments they’ve made and cross the line in the most heinous of ways.”

As we put it in our National Review editorial Friday morning:

If it is a one-off, this strike is the very definition of a symbolic pinprick. It was launched with highly precise weapons against the airfield from which the Syrian chemical attack emanated. According to reports, we apprised Russian personnel at the base beforehand, meaning the Syrians effectively had advance warning as well.

In other words, if this is all that we have in store for Bashar al-Assad, President Trump’s dismayed anti-interventionists don’t have that much to worry about and interventionists have less to celebrate than think (more about them in a moment). Assad can go on killing women and children — he will simply have to use less efficient and more conventional weapons to do it. What a massive moral victory for the West!

Look, I get why — morally, strategically, and legally — chemical weapons are different than conventional ones. But if my entire family and village were wiped out with bullets and bombs rather than chemical weapons, I wouldn’t draw much solace from any of these distinctions.

Laura Ingraham is right too:

Now I favor the strikes (though I have questions about their legality and I think Daniel Pipes makes some excellent points against the strike, here). But there is literally nothing to justify it in the past speeches, campaign promises, and tweets (!) of Donald Trump, going back four years.

Donald Trump didn’t oppose the Iraq War from the beginning, but he likes to claim he did. Regardless, let’s recall that Saddam Hussein killed orders of magnitude more people — including babies — with chemical weapons, and yet Trump never considered this even a partial justification for getting rid of Saddam or the war. But forget Iraq, which, admittedly, was a different thing on a number of fronts. Assad’s attack on Ghouta in 2013 killed more people than this week’s gas attack, and we had pictures of dead children then, too.

But Trump opposed enforcing Obama’s red line back then, nevertheless. The difference, as Trump admirably admitted from the Rose Garden, is that he’s president now and that changes your perspective on things. It’s always easy to throw brick-bats when you have no responsibility (one of the guiding tenets of this “news”letter by the way). Now he’s looking at the prospect of being the president who, in effect, sanctioned the use of chemical weapons, a violation of international law. As he put it in his statement Thursday night:

It is in this vital national-security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.

That is a sound argument. But it was just as sound in 2013. Trump’s real motivation seems to be the fact that babies were “choked out” and that he saw it on TV. And it is this apparent fact that should give everyone — supporters and critics alike — the most cause for concern. Ann Coulter wrote a whole book called In Trump We Trust, which, in its own cartoonish way, was a brilliant title in that it conveyed the unshakable, almost religious faith many of his most ardent supporters had in his will and his strength and his commitment to bucking the “establishment.”

Now:

Donald Trump is a charismatic political figure. I don’t mean that in the conventional sense that he’s “charming.” I mean it in the sociological and political-science sense. Max Weber delineated three kinds of authority — legal, traditional, and charismatic. Charismatic authority rests “on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” Charismatic leaders get people to write books called In Trump We Trust.

But the problem with charismatic leaders is that they are often a kind of Rorschach test. People project onto them what they want to see. I’ve lost count of how many conversations I’ve had with hardcore Trump fans who’ve described wildly different Donald Trumps — not simply different from the man I see, but different from each other. As a matter of logic, not all of these assessments can be right.

But logic also dictates that all of them can be wrong. Earlier this week I wrote a column about how the core problem with Trump’s presidency so far isn’t his lack of an agenda or his tweeting or any of that. It’s Trump’s own character. Many angry readers came at me saying that I was just refusing to get over my Never Trumpism (they’re wrong about that by the way). Others suggested I was just a sucker for the mainstream media’s “fake news.” I’m not a political reporter, but I do talk to a lot of people in and around the Trump administration. And the simple fact is that the chaos in the Trump White House is an outgrowth of the president’s personality. He’s mercurial. He cares more about status, saving face, respect, “winning,” etc. than he does about any public policy. That’s not to say he doesn’t care about public policy at all. I think he’s sincere in his views about immigration, trade, excessive regulation, etc. But they take a back seat to Trump’s desire to maintain his charismatic status (which is why we’ve seen so many stories about how he gets mad at staffers who get good press — a really bizarre attitude for a manager when you think about it).

As Rich put it the other day, writing about the (first) push for Trumpcare:

Trump, for his part, has lacked the knowledge, focus or interest to translate his populism into legislative form. He deferred to others on legislative priorities and strategies at the outset of his administration, and his abiding passion in the health-care debate was, by all accounts, simply getting to a signing ceremony.

The strike on Syria is the single best proof that Trump has no overriding commitment to any ideological position. And I say this, again, as someone who supports the strike. Ramesh likes to say that we sometimes make too big a deal of it when politicians flip-flop. Conservatives should want politicians to flip or flop (not sure of the usage here) if it means they abandon their wrong positions and agree with us. So, sure, I’m happy to celebrate his change of heart. I’m also delighted to watch the Cernovich crowd freak out. But there’s a larger lesson here. If Trump can abandon his position on this — all because of some horrific pictures on TV — what position is safe?

This is why I am actually encouraged by the response from the Coulter crowd. Until now, the standard response to Trump’s indefensible or indecipherable statements and outbursts was to say, “He knows more than us.” Or “This is what got him elected.” Or “He’s playing three-dimensional chess!” Or, simply, “I trust him.” As I put it in a column in February:

When a political leader replaces fixed principles and clear ideological platforms with his own instincts and judgment, he gives his supporters no substantive arguments to rely on. Eventually, the argument to just say, “Have faith” in our leader, he knows best, is the only safe harbor.

And that’s not what conservatism is about — nor, for that matter, democracy.

The fact that some in the Trump-can-do-no-wrong crowd are setting their collective hair on fire over the Syria strikes is a sign of ideological health (even if, again, I disagree with the substance of their complaint).

What continues to stun me is how shocked they are that this wasn’t in the cards all along.

Right now, there’s a lot of talk about how both Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus may be on the way out at the White House. In general, I’d shed no tears at Bannon’s defenestration, but it’s worth noting that Bannon and Priebus now form an unlikely coalition against Jared Kushner, a lifelong liberal Democrat. By all accounts Kushner is a smart and serious guy. He also has the ace up his sleeve of being married to the president’s (also liberal) daughter. I have grave disagreements with Bannon, but in this fight I think I’m on his side:

One senior Trump aide said that Bannon was also frustrated with Kushner “continuing to bring in [Obamacare architect] Zeke Emanuel to discuss health care options,” for instance. The aide said Emanuel has had three White House meetings, including one with Trump.

But the idea that the chaos in the White House is a function of bad staff is grossly unfair, even to Bannon. The chaos isn’t a bug in the Trump program — it is the program. It’s how he likes to run things. He could bring in a whole new roster of people, the result will likely be the same.

I’ll close with this. Some defenders have argued that Trump is merely a pragmatist. Don’t worry, I won’t rehash all my anti-pragmatism stuff. But I will say that this defense often makes a profound moral, political, and ideological error. Pragmatism (conventionally defined) about means is generally fine, within limits of course. But pragmatism about ends isn’t pragmatism at all, it’s Nietzschean nihilism. If your goals are made slaves to your desire to seem like a winner, then the question of what you “win” at becomes entirely negotiable. Conceptually, this is the difference between a knight and a mercenary. A knight fights for certain lofty ideals; a mercenary fights to win and reap the rewards. Politically, this is the lesson of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship. He decided that he’d rather be a successful liberal governor than a failed conservative one.

If I were Coulter, Ingraham, or Sean Hannity I’d make a lot more money fighting the “establishment” than I do allegedly defending it, but that’s not important right now. If I were them, I’d be terrified by the reaction to the strike. Trump is getting good press. He’s being hailed as a strong and decisive leader. He’s got heart. John McCain and Marco Rubio are praising him, as are a host of foreign leaders. This would scare me for two reasons. First, if I were a committed America Firster like Coulter and Ingraham, I’d see this for what it is: incredibly positive reinforcement for a politician who responds to flattery more than most. But, second, I’d recognize that the lesson Trump might learn from this is that your poll numbers and press clippings get better when you throw your biggest fans under the bus and listen to the establishment, Jared Kushner, or Lord knows who else.

Various & Sundry

This really doesn’t belong in the V&S section, but I didn’t want to let it go by. It’s rather amazing that Donald Trump’s greatest accomplishment and the most significant conservative victory in a long time is secondary news this week. Neil Gorsuch will be the next justice on the Supreme Court. Trump deserves congratulation and so do the people who, despite their misgivings, voted for Trump solely on this issue. If that’s all you cared about — and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way at all — you’ve been vindicated. Now, all conservatives — and I mean all — should be resolutely clear that Trump should either stick to his list of potential nominees or, at the very least, promise not to stray leftward from it. The job of conservatives, as ever, is to make it in the political interest of Republicans to do conservative things.

Canine Update: I am going to forgo the usual reportings of my own canine companions this week because I have a different canine update. Longtime readers of mine will remember my old wing-hound, the late great Cosmo the Wonderdog. A few might remember that Cosmo’s best friend and partner in all manner of adventures was my sister-in-law’s (and brother-in-law’s) dog Buckley. Buckley, or “Buckles” as we often called him, was one of the sweetest beasts I’ve ever known. He died this week at the age of 13. Cosmo and Buckley loved each other even more than their humans loved them. When they’d see each other in the neighborhood, they’d run to each other like war buddies delighted to learn the other one had survived the enemy offensive too.

Physically, Buckles could have kicked Cosmo’s tail region six ways from Sunday, but he was quite literally America’s most harmless dog — unless you were a deer or a squirrel. For Cosmo had trained him in the sublime art of critter chasing from his earliest days. They were, for a time, master and apprentice:

Cosmo tried to school Buckley in his own Mencken-like misanthropy, distrusting humans from outside the pack. But it never took. Whenever strangers came to visit, and once Buckles had confirmed that the humans weren’t squirrels in human disguises (trust but verify!), he would put his head in their laps and flash them his baby browns. Coz just muttered his disapproval.

In Buckles’s old age, he got a little more lumpy and a little more grumpy, at least toward other dogs. He had little use for Zoë, whose wild puppiness elicited grave concern, as seen here. And I couldn’t blame him.

Anyway, he will be dearly missed. The world is always better with dogs and it’s always a little worse when they go. After Buckles passed, Carrie and Amit and the kids said a little prayer for him. Unprompted, my nephew Owen, who never knew Cosmo, added at the end, “He’s in Heaven now, playing with his good friend Coz.”

Rest in Peace, big guy.

ICYMI . . .

Why does F. H. Buckley want Trump to promote single-payer health care?

Trump’s character is his presidency’s biggest enemy.

What does it mean that Steve Bannon left the National Security Council?

My radio hit on Chicago’s Morning Answer.

Syria and the difficulties of realism.

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Thursday and Friday links

Man who believes himself to be the reincarnation of King Arthur holds pagan rituals at Stonehenge (foolishly forgetting that Arthur is healing from his wounds at Avalon and will someday return)

New weight-loss therapy involves self-immolation

Why do cartoons only have four fingers?

Why do cartoons wear gloves?

2017 Sony World Photography award winners

Sharknado is upon us

The birth of Comic Sans

Was the T-Rex a sensitive lover?

Tokyo at rush hour, in pictures

Nazi Jurassic Park

Tropical fish with opioids in their fangs

The quest for McDonald’s pizza

When the world went crazy over Y2K

Dog saves wedding party from suicide bomber

The fascinating history of the potato cannon

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg