When Donald Trump ordered the use of 59 Tomahawk missiles to strike a Syrian air base operated by the Assad regime, many observers were taken almost completely by surprise. There had been rumblings, no doubt, suggestions that, after the terrible chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate, something might be done. But this was merely hinted at, mentioned in line with a range of possibilities. That was a demonstration that options had not been over-hastily removed from the table.
The president’s record seemed clear, at any rate. He was for ‘America First’; he was effectively pro-dictator; he did not seem overly affected by a previous use of Sarin by Bashar al-Assad, and had railed against his predecessor Barack Obama when the latter had mooted punitive action against Syria’s dictator. It all appeared very clear – open and shut. There would be denunciations, perhaps even sincere, and then things would return to their usual pace, and once more silence would reign.
But then, almost out of the blue, strikes were reported. After six years the United States has finally taken direct action against the Assad regime, and it had done so under Donald Trump.
The surprise which followed was only right, given what had come before. But now the president’s response can be more effectively charted.
It appears that this action was instinctive, almost explicitly emotional; and in that it was welcome.
Very possibly, the first emotion to occur to Donald Trump upon being made aware that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons was irritation. Trump had previously argued that Assad be allowed to stay in power. He had effectively given him a stay of execution.
Trump’s administration had more or less announced that Assad could stay; his fate would be ‘in the hands of the Syrian people’, which is less democratic than it sounds in a dictatorship, and less fair than it sounds in a civil war where only one side has an air force and the direct support of numerous foreign powers.
And the dictator’s response to this leniency was to abuse the president’s trust. Trump must have known that he could not allow a war crime of this nature to stand. No matter his previous position on the use of poison gas in war, he could not let this slide and avoid the label with which he had abused Obama. He could not allow himself to look weak.
But then came more information. And with that information came pictures, produced by witnesses on the ground – crudely shot, horrifically vivid. Pictures and film of people suffocating to death, their eyes bulging, their mouths foaming.
It seems there was a genuine emotive response once he saw the pictures. It is easy enough to dismiss horrors if one is detached. But as the president of the United States, Trump is unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the messiness and tragedy of events.
And those pictures elicited something in him which is different and unusual. Much is made of Trump’s strange use of language, but his simple, almost unadorned response to the gassing of ‘beautiful babies’ seemed uncalculated; it seemed sincere. That phrase appeared in a statement designed to justify the strike ex post facto, but its language is foreshadowed in the material acquired by the press in the aftermath of Assad’s chemical attack: shock, moral outrage, and not wholly hidden emotion.
Part of this is down to the nature of the job. Since Trump has taken office he has been confronted with far more morally provoking material. No longer can he pontificate without evidence or moral investment. He knows that the Syrian government used gas – he was briefed extensively to that effect by James Mattis, his Secretary of Defense, and H. R. McMaster, his national security advisor, both men who appreciate the criminal nature of the Assad regime and who are hardly isolationist. Their influence likely ensured the attention of the president.
It cannot also be denied that the influence of his family may have pushed Trump in a more emotive direction. As civilians newly inducted into positions of knowledge, it is probably that they, like the president, experienced shock and real sadness upon being presented with the truth of this atrocity. Trump was confronted with what happened in a way which made its moral horror undeniable.
His response can be seen in light of this. No longer can he flippantly dismiss the response to dictators using gas, as he did when talking about Saddam Hussein. In this case he was unable to be disinterested. His position demands a degree of participation, moral and practical, and with that comes terrible knowledge.
This is not to say that Trump is a good man or necessarily a good administrator. He will have to prove both in time, and to do so consistently until he gives up office. But there is something to be said for his unvarnished emotion, and for the fact that he acted upon it.
An emotional response to an undoubtedly emotive crisis may well be better than a reaction comprising studied indifference. And it certainly is if emotionalism results in action where otherwise there would have been nothing.
Trump’s style, in this as in other matters, has been diametrically opposite to that of his predecessor. This is a longstanding trend among American presidents, particularly in foreign policy. Obama’s morally and emotionally restrained response to Syria seemed almost cold. Trump has no ambition to be an aloof intellectual in the Obama mould.
This could prove chaotic in the longer term, if Trump really does allow his heart to rule his head. But he has advisors like Mattis and McMaster of the utmost quality. They can be counted on to restrain the president when necessary and when practical. But in this case an emotive response happened to be the right one, and it happened to address a terrible moral chasm in American policy towards Syria.
So long as Trump is well-counselled, it cannot be a crime for him to be open to a little emotion.