We need to get the right-wing and left-wing conspiracy theorists together to hash this out. Was Assad’s chemical attack in Idlib a false flag perpetrated by some shadowy agent (Syrian rebels, the “deep state,” Mossad, etc) to give Trump’s new establishment masters a pretext to lead him into war? Or was it a real attack cynically exploited by Trump a la “Wag the Dog” to change the subject from bad news here at home (the Russia probe, health-care failure, sagging job approval, etc), possibly with the cooperation of Vladimir Putin? Under the first theory, American hawks are trying to push Trump into conflict with Russia and Assad. Under the second theory, Trump and Putin are trying to create the appearance of conflict to give him cover on Russiagate and other matters. Which is it?
An alternate theory via McKay Coppins: Despite the many approving noises about isolationism that he made as a candidate, Trump is a Jacksonian. He’s impulsive and obsessed with projecting strength, especially in contrast to Barack Obama. When the opportunity to enforce Obama’s “red line” presented himself, he couldn’t resist. Occam’s Razor.
Though Trump lacks the level of knowledge and grasp of history necessary to form an all-encompassing foreign policy doctrine, he has consistently articulated a belief that America’s enemies around the world can be terrified into submission—if the commander-in-chief is willing to send a strong message. Even if Trump had opted to stay out of the Syrian conflict, that belief of his—paired with a general aversion to the compromises of diplomacy—likely would have led him to abandon whatever isolationist tendencies he harbored sooner or later…
Beyond fighting terrorism, Trump has often said the U.S. needs to be more “unpredictable” on the world stage. While running for president, he pointedly refused to take the potential use of nuclear weapons off the table, even in places like Europe. That probably wasn’t because he had big plans to bomb Estonia; it was because he wanted to place as few constraints on himself as possible, believing that the more nervous he made the world as commander-in-chief, the less likely it was that adversaries would mess with America. Some have identified this approach as a return to the “Madman Theory,” Richard Nixon’s belief that if his enemies thought he was unbalanced, he would have a stronger negotiating position against China on the Vietnam War.
You never know when a displeased Jacksonian might punch you in the face, an important lesson early in Trump’s presidency not just for Assad but for, among other people, Kim Jong-un. But explaining away Thursday’s bombing by citing Trump’s erratic bellicosity does him a disservice in that it implies he doesn’t care much about Syria on its own terms. On the contrary, reports CNN, he’s been talking privately about action there for months, since before the inauguration:
Months earlier, during an off-the-record holiday gathering with reporters at his opulent Mar-a-Lago estate a week before Christmas, Trump spoke at length about the carnage of the Syrian civil war, revealing that the issue was weighing on him as he prepared to take office. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks authorized CNN on Friday to report the contents of his remarks on the topic at the gathering, which CNN attended.
He described the slaughter of civilians in Syria as a “holocaust,” and remarked on the “high pain threshold” of the population there.
Trump also described in detail a video he had seen of an elderly woman being shot multiple times in Syria, struggling as she tried to continue to walk.
And then, he acknowledged that the US had a “responsibility” over the devastating Syrian conflict — the same word he would use months later before approving the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to target a Syrian Air Force base.
If this was a “false flag” or a “wag the dog,” it’s a loooong time in the making. A much simpler, less sexy explanation for Trump’s evolution is that he’s surrounded by hawks in his cabinet, starting with Mattis at the Pentagon, and they’ve influenced his views over time. (Mattis’s opinion carries so much weight with Trump that it seems to have convinced to abandon waterboarding as an interrogation strategy.) In particular, Trump’s inner circle is unanimous in viewing Iran as a major threat, and Iran is of course Bashar Assad’s chief regional patron. Beyond that, the U.S. natsec complex has been grumbling for years that Obama did too little as president to warn Assad away from attacks like the one this week in Idlib. Chris Hayes of MSNBC noted on Twitter a few days ago how striking it was that so many former Obama advisors seemed to approve of Trump’s decision to bomb on Thursday, suggesting a lot of unhappiness down the chain within the previous administration about O’s passivity. With practically everyone in a position of power — except Steve Bannon, allegedly — urging him to send a message to Assad and the rest of the world’s bad guys by slapping Assad across the face, go figure that Trump would lean that way too. No conspiracy theory required.
Finally, don’t forget that Putin has been provoking Trump in greater and lesser ways since he took office. The lesser includes fly-bys of U.S. ships by Russian jets; the greater includes violating the INF Treaty, an infraction serious enough to have led Trump to put diplomatic outreach to Moscow on the back burner. O’Donnell’s conspiracy theory, like many conspiracy theories, is essentially unfalsifiable: If Trump and Putin make nice with each other, they’re colluding, but if they end up at odds as they did this week in Syria, they’re … colluding, manufacturing conflict to distract from the evidence of their previous collusion. Short of ordering a shooting war between U.S. and Russian forces, Trump is left with no way to prove that his objection to Assad’s WMD attack is on the level.