The Media’s Reaction to Syrian Strikes Was Right Out of the Washington Playbook

When uber-hawk Lindsay Graham suggests that Syrian President Assad is saying a big “F you” by continuing to launch military attacks against his own people from the air base the U.S. just struck with Tomahawk missiles, we can be assured that Trump’s military intervention didn’t work out very well. But I suspect that, when it comes to the American media and his political fortunes, the president got exactly what he wanted out of them.

Margaret Sullivan summarized a few of the reactions.

The cruise missiles struck, and many in the mainstream media fawned.

“I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night,” declared Fareed Zakaria on CNN, after firing of 59 missiles at a Syrian military airfield late Thursday night…

“On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first,” read a New York Times headline.

“President Trump has done the right thing and I salute him for it,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens — a frequent Trump critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist. He added: “Now destroy the Assad regime for good.”

Brian Williams, on MSNBC, seemed mesmerized by the images of the strikes provided by the Pentagon. He used the word “beautiful” three times and alluded to a Leonard Cohen lyric — “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons” — without apparent irony.

All it took was a load of Tomahawk missiles dropped on an air base and we were treated to a front row seat of what Obama called the “Washington playbook” in action.

There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.

When Obama first said that to Jeffrey Goldberg, I immediately thought about the military and foreign policy bureaucrats in the federal government. But last week, we saw how the Washington playbook also provides the media with a tailor-made script. That is partially because we still live in a culture where force is embraced as the ultimate mechanism for control. But as Jack Shafer wrote, it is especially true of cable news.

The networks love war because it allows them to dust off archival footage of planes in the air, ships at sea, howitzers barking, Bashar Assad sitting with Vladimir Putin, and civilians suffering…war isn’t news for the networks, it’s programming.

Talking to Jonathan Mahler of the New York Times Magazine about political coverage, [CNN News President Jeff] Zucker offered the idea of the news as a drama and CNN’s on-air talent as “characters” in that production. It’s not a stretch to see his coverage of the war as another performance piece, designed to engage viewers the way a play or movie might.

Using the Washington playbook as a script for their own drama means that the media allows Republicans to suggest that Obama did nothing when it comes to Syria. Former Secretary of State John Kerry and his staff have every reason to object to that characterization given the miles and hours they devoted to negotiations among the players that are using Syria as a proxy war for their own interests. In the end, they were not able to broker an agreement (just as those Tomahawks didn’t accomplish much of anything), but the message is clear: diplomacy equals nothing, but bombs are “presidential.”

There is something Obama said in that interview with Goldberg that is a powerful antidote to the Washington playbook. Think about this for a moment:

Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.

When more of us begin to understand the kind of “real power” Obama was talking about, we’ll learn that the Washington playbook isn’t the only game in town and that you don’t have to drop bombs to be presidential.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.