Democrats finally showed some spine last week, mounting a filibuster against Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch – only to immediately undermine themselves when almost two-thirds of their caucus in the Senate supported Trump’s ham-fisted show of force in Syria. Doing so not only ran counter to grassroots efforts to resist Trump and Trumpism, but also highlighted a long-standing asymmetry between the parties, even under a Republican president who’s historically unpopular and whose legitimacy is open to question.
In the days following the Syria strike, and before Sean Spicer created a Holocaust controversy out of thin air, the White House and its allies had been celebrating what they saw as a good week – one in which they demonstrated strength and resolve, and which represented a potential turning point in Trump’s chaotic presidency. This view might have been summed up best by Alec Baldwin’s Trump character on SNL this week when he told a crowd of supporters, “Gorsuch was confirmed, the media is saying nice things and nobody is talking about Russia – what a difference 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles can make!”
But as Politico’s chief polling analyst, Steven Shephard, pointed out, “recent history suggests that any ‘rally ’round the flag’ effect on Trump’s popularity is contingent on what comes next. … The degree of U.S. involvement in Syria, the breadth of Democratic support and depth of opposition to Trump’s eventual actions — all of it will shape and color public perceptions of the president’s performance.”
The early polls are revealing. Gallup reports that public opinion of Trump’s Syria attack – with 50 percent approving of the action and 41 percent opposed – “rates low” compared to past American military exploits. The Washington Post /ABC News poll found similar results, but noted that 37 percent of Democrats supported the move, which is basically the same number (38 percent) that backed Obama’s proposed airstrikes in 2013. The picture with Republicans is starkly different: Only 22 percent were in favor of military action in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, but 86 percent support it now.
It’s hard to imagine more than a third of Democrats approving of Trump’s action if their party’s elected officials had been united in opposition. The anti-strike messaging was simple, as Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy demonstrated in a statement:
“[A]n ill-thought out military action with absolutely no overall strategy for Syria risks dragging us further into a civil war in which we cannot tip the scales. And put in the context of U.S. policies that aid the slaughter of civilians in Yemen and deny terrorized Syrians the ability to flee their dystopian existence, a solitary air strike exposes the immoral hypocrisy of this administration’s policy in the Middle East.”
While it’s fashionable to decry partisanship, most people are too busy leading their lives to study up on the intricacies of policy, whether it’s health care or the Middle East. Most constituents rely on partisan signals as a shortcut, a handy cue for how we should interpret the news of the day.
So the degree of opposition or support from the other side shapes public perception. And it’s important to point out that at no time did the Republican Party give Obama even an ounce of cover for his military actions. The staunchest GOP hawks became doves. At no time did politics “end at the water’s edge” for a cautious Democratic president.
In 2013, Obama considered a far more aggressive response to the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Unlike Trump’s strike, which resulted in only a brief disruption of operations at Shayrat airbase – ABC News reported that the Syrian regime moved equipment away from the base prior to the strike, and Assad’s jets flew out of the base the following day – Obama was ready to significantly degrade the Syrian military. As the Washington Post reports, “at the time, leading Republicans mocked the Obama administration for what it called ‘pinprick’ strikes, calling them ineffective. Today they praise Trump’s smaller strikes as perfectly calculated.”
The story quotes a number of prominent Republicans who used that word – “pinprick” – in 2013, and who are now lauding trump’s “strength.” When confronted with the inconsistency, Republicans fell back on the claim that Obama never pulled the trigger. At least Trump did something, they argued. But that elides the fact that, unlike Trump, Obama went to Congress to seek authorization for his plan, and Republican leaders never brought the resolution to the floor for a vote. And, of course, while the Obama administration had focused its campaign on ISIS rather than Assad, his administration did drop 12,192 bombs on Syria in 2016 alone. It’s hard to say he did nothing in Syria.
To be fair, we can’t dismiss the horrors of chemical weapons attacks on civilian populations, and Democrats can’t necessarily be faulted for supporting a forceful response to a serious violation of international law in the abstract. But this isn’t an abstraction. It’s a military action undertaken by a president who’s offered no reason to believe he’s capable of upholding international law in the midst of a chaotic conflict – or even that he’s interested in that brand of internationalism. After all, rejecting the longstanding consensus on multilateralism was the cornerstone of his campaign.
After two years demonizing Syrian refugees – most of whom are women, children, and the elderly and infirm – as potential terrorists, and saying repeatedly that the U.S. shouldn’t be the “world’s policeman,” and that he doesn’t want to be “president of the world,” the most charitable interpretation of his sudden reversal is that he reacted impulsively to images of Syrian victims and fired off an ineffectual volley of cruise missiles. As David Frum, usually a reliable pro-war voice, notes, “there can have been no proper interagency process before the strike, because none of the relevant agencies of government other than the Department of Defense is properly staffed to join such a process.”
Russia has announced that it will cut off communications with U.S. forces in response to the strikes (though it’s unclear if they really meant it), potentially complicating the fight against ISIS, and moved to strengthen Assad’s air defenses. Nobody is even arguing that those 59 cruise missiles significantly changed the situation on the ground, and both Russia and Iran have said that they would respond to further strikes with force. Iran is positioned to make the U.S. campaign against ISIS in Iraq a lot more difficult. If Trump has some larger strategic vision in Syria, he isn’t sharing it with the American people.
Given the complexity of the Syrian civil war, where around a dozen groups backed by various regional actors, the U.S. and Russia are fighting a series of cross-cutting conflicts, it’s hard to see why anyone who cares about the Syrian people would give Donald Trump the benefit of the doubt. After all, this is an administration that’s reportedly struggled to manage the White House’s annual Easter egg hunt. It’s a litmus test conflict: If one backs a poorly planned and potentially disastrous military adventure by Trump, it’s hard to imagine that person finding fault with any American military action.
Whatever their rationale, rather than help shape public opinion against a potentially catastrophic bit of security theater, Democrats have let a bruised opponent off the mat by giving his Syrian fireworks bipartisan cover. Republicans wouldn’t have dreamed of doing the same for Obama, and their hypocrisy on the matter really has to change.