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Trump’s Syria Strike and the Washington Spring
The Syria airstrike and a stronger president
by Conrad Black
Perhaps it is a function of spring, and of the irrepressible perseverance of hope, which even motionless in the heart of darkness cannot be extinguished, that I cautiously predict the beginnings of a return to functioning government in Washington. The whole country and much of the world hopes for an end to 20 years of gridlock, chronic fiscal mismanagement, absurd wars generating gigantic humanitarian crises and large strategic gains for the enemies of the West, in particular Iran, and debased domestic politics in which each change of regime in the White House and Congress seemed to make things worse and not better.
It would have been hard to foresee that such a simple act as firing 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian air base where gas attacks on Syrian civilians, ordered by the Syrian president, originated would have had the halcyon effect that it has had on the whole unruly Washington circus. It has been so long since a president acted effectively and decisively in the national interest by using American military strength that the confidence of the country and the world in the efficacy of the American military had declined. Apart from the execution of Osama bin Laden, American military force had not visibly been successfully deployed since the surge in Iraq ten years ago.
It was grim and depressing to see the video revenances from the Obama red-line fiasco, the claim of a great achievement in eliminating all of Syria’s sarin-gas stocks without having to fire a shot. We all knew at the time it was an illusion, but the pictures of the child victims of the latest Assad atrocity were not merely horrifying in themselves, they were also a somber reminder of the terminal enfeeblement and mendacity of the Obama-Clinton-Kerry slapstick foreign-policy team.
That fiasco was of a piece with Susan Rice’s righteous explanation that the murder of the American ambassador and other officials in Benghazi in 2012 was provoked by a “heinous” anti-Islamist Internet video produced by an anti-Islamist American private citizen. We all knew that that was a falsehood, too, but Susan Rice was the preferred candidate of the then-president to be secretary of state. She was disqualified by this whopper, not that the ultimate nominee (John Kerry) was remotely adequate. It was with all of them a foreign policy based on deliberate weakness and the doctrine of Mr. Obama’s, as the egregious Tom Friedman of the New York Times fawningly called it, that if we treated enemy countries as friends they would be magically transformed into friends.
No one expects that the attack last week will reform Assad’s behavior (it is only seven years since Hillary Clinton called him “a reformer”), but it has sent the message that the long night of delusional altruism and deliberate weakness in American foreign and security policy is over. It has also helped create the only circumstances in which relations between the United States and Russia can be put back on a sound foundation after the shambles of the Obama-Biden-Clinton “reset.”
I wrote here several weeks ago of the promising meeting of the chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff of the United States, Russia, and Turkey, on March 9, and of the emerging policy of Turkey replacing Iran as a power in Syria and of a division of government within Syria between Assad and the Western-sponsored secular moderates. For this to have any possibility of success, Russia will have to grasp the fact that the goodwill and cooperation of the United States is worth more to it than its obscene friendship with Iran, insofar as such a quarrel among thieves could be so described. The basis of such an arrangement would likely be the joint effort against ISIS, expulsion of Iran from Syria, a partition between Assad-ruled areas and Western-sponsored government zones, resettlement of refugees, recognition of Russian occupation of Crimea, the end of sanctions on Russia, a complete end of Russian harassment of Ukraine, and a joint guarantee of Ukraine’s borders. Ukraine would refrain from entering NATO but would be able to join the European Union when its progress at self-government made it eligible.
Practically, the airstrike did not accomplish much, but psychologically and tactically it sent a uniformly clear message to all relevant centers of opinion, foreign and domestic. It did attract broad public and political support. Some of the highbrow conservative Never Trumpers, such as William Kristol, acknowledged the appropriateness of the measure. Some of the rabidly hostile media rallied admirably, such as Fareed Zakaria, a die-hard Obama enthusiast, who said that Trump had behaved like a president. Of course the incorrigibles continued; Rachel Maddow on MSNBC found a guest to estimate at somewhere between 2 and 50 percent the chances that the entire raid was rigged up between Trump and Putin. I didn’t catch his name and shortly after his lips began moving I determined that I did not want to know his name. It is hard not to wonder where Maddow finds such people and what level of maladjustment she must have achieved in order to inflict such nonsense on the diminutive knot of her viewers.
The apparently civilized meeting with the president of China and the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, all on the same day, restored the impression of a determined president moving quickly. It is a distinct step forward to be done with the filibuster, an antediluvian invention of southern Democrats to prevent the passage of anti-lynching laws, and a procedural obstacle that has been terribly abused for decades. All 52 Republicans held for Gorsuch, three Democrats defected, and the new justice will ensure, among other things, the failure of the putsch the Democrats mounted — with the assistance of carefully shopped, flaky, left-wing West Coast judges — to emasculate the president’s powers in matters of immigration.
There cannot be much left of the campaigns to represent Trump as a sexist or racist or autocrat or isolationist, or as someone about whom the New York Times’s ineffable Nicholas Kristof detected “a whiff of treason,” over the nonsensical Russian allegations. It is hard now to remember the march of angry women when President Trump was inaugurated or even to remember what they were angry about, or why Madonna wanted to “blow up the White House,” or Representative Maxine Waters wanted to impeach Trump. The famous headgear for the mass women’s demonstrations, which sold for $20 at the time to the saps at the marches, is now being remaindered at 95 cents.
The discomfort of the Democrats over the cloudy but persistent evidence of surveillance of Trump Tower has seriously muted their previous affected militancy on the bogus issue of Trump–Russia collusion. It has all become absurd, as chairman Devin Nunes of the House Intelligence Committee has dutifully stepped aside to permit an inquiry into the propriety of his informing the public and the president of evidence of improper surveillance of the president’s campaign. So there is now an investigation of Nunes’s investigation of the Obama investigation and surveillance of the Trump campaign’s fictitious collusion with Russia. These investigations, so fatuously hyped by most of the media, have been piled on top of each other even though there is no evidence to embarrass the president.
The long night of deliberate weakness in American foreign and security policy is over.
In the spirit of the season, I embrace the hope that the whole thunderhead of confected indignation will dissolve soon, that the Democrats will stop boycotting the administration and help to make the system work after these 20 lean years, and that Donald Trump will be able to enact the program that he promised, addressing decades of stagnation in many public-policy areas. Taxes and whatever is feasible in health care should be next. The country and the world need to see that the American system works after all. Perhaps I am intoxicated by the anticipated scent of the magnolias, but I dare to hope that even infected elements of the national media may rediscover the joys of professionalism and of practicing their craft with integrity. This is now the American dream — effective government reported by a responsible press, after a prolonged agony of depressed sleeplessness.
First published in NRO.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership.