I have no idea what I would do about Syria if I were President of the United States. I’m not sure there is a right answer. But I do know that under his current cloud of scandal, Donald Trump is incapable of making any right decision on matters of war and peace.
Like any humanitarian crisis born of oppression and civil strife, the situation in Syria is nearly intractable. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is almost certainly guilty of using chemical weapons against his own people, including intentional use on civilian populations. The chemical weapons attacks are merely the most ghastly element of a brutal and merciless campaign of violence that began when Assad’s forces opened fire on peaceful protesters. It is practically impossible for the Western world to stand back and do nothing in response, nor is simply taking in more refugees from the area an adequate answer to the horror. On the other hand, the history of Western military intervention in the Middle East has been destructive or imperialist at worst, and ineffectual or counterproductive at best. Nor is it clear that, even if it were possible, removing Assad and handing the country to his mostly ISIS- and Al Qaeda-aligned opposition would be a desirable outcome either for the rest of the world or for the Syrian people. The fact that Russia is engaged in an imperialist campaign of aggression on Assad’s behalf in order to preserve its access to natural gas pipelines only makes the situation more morally difficult.
So it is no accident that the Obama and Trump administrations have both–despite the reported reticence of both men against getting involved–found themselves wavering on policy, joining with traditional allies to conduct limited airstrikes and support but not engaging enough to get dragged into another quagmire like Iraq and Afghanistan. And it is almost certain that, given her strong support for bombing campaigns in Syria in the past few years (alongside that of center-left think tanks like Center for American Progress), a president Hillary Clinton would have made a very similar decision to the one Donald Trump made last night. (And anti-war Bernie Sanders fans shouldn’t get smug here, either: a President Sanders would face the same impossible conundrum, likely making the same consensus policy decision that has disappointed anti-interventionist Trump fans like Alex Jones.)
One thing is certain, however: there is no policy choice Trump can make that is the right one, because any choice he makes cannot be taken seriously at this point. No one can trust his ability to make tactical or strategic decisions with competence or foresight. And above all, no one can trust his motives for any decision.
The first half of Friday was possibly the most scandal-ridden of any in Trump’s entire presidency, with multiple blockbuster news reports concerning Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen, his corrupt pardon of Scooter Libby, the ongoing fallout from the Comey book tour, further reports of corruption by EPA chief Scott Pruitt, and much else besides. It has been widely reported that faced with mounting pressure on all sides, Trump is in his blackest moods yet.
It hardly matters if Trump intended to use the strikes on Syria as a “wag the dog” distraction from his troubles. What matters is that under the circumstances it is impossible for the public or for allies to divine the president’s motives, which in turn makes it impossible to know how to craft policy in response.
Given that Trump wanted to pull all troops and resources out Syria as little as a week ago, was it really true that seeing children dying from chlorine gas was the reason he changed course? Or did his advisers, including his real morning briefers at Fox and Friends, persuade him it would make a good distraction from Mueller and Comey?
Is Trump guilty of collusion with Russia, and did he warn Putin of attacks so that Russia could remove any real targets of value before the strikes began? Or is he innocent and merely announced the assault out of pure bravado, contradicting his prior tweets insisting that he would never give an enemy advance notice? Or is it something in between? How could anyone know? And how could any of our allies commit to full support of our efforts under the circumstances, regardless of what they may be?
Donald Trump simply cannot serve as an effective Commander in Chief. He may be able to use his working digits to sign legislation that Congress puts in front of him. But buffeted as he is by an unprecedented tempest of scandal and likely criminal conduct, there is no way for him to effectively fulfill his most important role for the country, regardless of whether one agrees with his policies and instincts or not.
It is obvious that for the health of the country, its interests and the safety of its armed forces, the president must resign. He is already far too compromised to do his job.