Trump manipulates Obama loyalists into defending the indefensible.
If President Donald Trump wanted to confuse his opponents and dilute any serious criticisms of his approach to the situation in Syria, he could have done no better than to blame his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the crisis. In a statement condemning the slaughter of civilians in what appears to be the worst regime-ordered chemical attack since 2013, the president observed that Obama had drawn a “red line” over this same sort of thing but “did nothing.” Instantly, partisan battle lines were etched into the sand. The New York Times editorial board was one of many liberal outlets that felt compelled to defend Barack Obama’s Syria policy. In the process, they water down their criticisms of Trump’s approach to the nightmare in the Levant. That serves Donald Trump’s interests just fine.
The occasion of an attack using weapons of mass destruction in Syria that killed at least 70—including ten children—and injured over 400 is an inopportune moment for a president to pass the buck to his predecessor. Trump’s statement represented a crass attempt at obfuscation, and an abdication of an American president’s responsibility to eschew prevarications. As a political tactic, however, Trump’s maneuver succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings.
President Barack Obama does deserve blame for the crisis in Syria. His administration has earned censure for compounding the disaster in a craven effort to avoid intervention into that conflict at almost all costs. Of course, Donald Trump is similarly committed to avoiding engagement in the Syrian civil war. By triggering the protective instincts of Obama’s loyal progeny, Trump has deflected criticism from his disengagement and forced the left to defend Obama’s.
The New York Times editorial board was in bountiful company when they jumped at the president’s bait. They were right to note that the world risks becoming inured to the images of children frothing at the mouth, writhing in agony as the struggle to breathe through chemically-scarred lungs. This attack was, however, of an order of magnitude greater than previous attacks. The Times editorial board observed that this makes no tactical sense, considering that the Assad regime has all but won the Civil War. They and their Russian and Iranian allies have, by and large, neutralized pro-Western rebels and secured the concession that the Trump administration no longer believes Assad’s ouster is a prerequisite for peace. The Times was on secure ground when it called the timing of this attack, coming less than a week after Assad’s survival was virtually assured by Washington, conspicuous.
The piece could have stopped there. The Times also might have gone on to note that Trump’s passing of the buck back fails to meet the measure of an American president. If they were feeling especially saucy, the opinion-page editors might have observed that Trump actually advised Barack Obama to do precisely what he is today criticizing: ignore the “red line” for action against the Assad regime. But they didn’t. Instead, the New York Times’ editorial board felt obliged to defend Obama’s record in Syria, muddying their argument and rendering it dismissible in the process.
The Times noted that Trump’s explicit assertion that Assad’s ouster is no longer an American priority is only the verbalization of an implicit Obama-era policy. The editorial further observed, oddly, that Obama shifted toward that view “only after repeated efforts to work with Russia on a political solution.” Indeed, it is not despite but because of those efforts that Assad is today so entrenched. “Mr. Trump ignored the fact that instead of taking military action, which Congress mostly opposed, Mr. Obama worked on with Russia on a deal under which Mr. Assad agreed to dismantle his chemical munitions.” Remember, this is Barack Obama’s defense.
Barack Obama’s primetime address to the nation on the night of September 10, 2013, may be remembered as the most pivotal moment of his presidency. It was the night in which he made a prosecutorial, compelling case for military action against Assad, then announced that he had no intention of doing anything about it. Obama instead declared that both Congress and Russia would rescue him from having to deliver on his threats.
Obama put the matter to Congress at a moment of maximum weakness. Having just lost a vote in the House of Commons in support of what John Kerry pitched as an “unbelievably small” retaliatory attack on Assad, congressional Republicans were unimpressed. Democrats, too, found the prospect of a perfunctory attack on Syria a distraction. “When we’re working Syria, we’re not working on something else,” said Senator Ben Cardin. In the end, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted for Obama’s request, but then Majority Leader Harry Reid never put it to a vote.
While the politics played out in Washington, Barack Obama invited Russia to intervene diplomatically on behalf of its client in Damascus. Even as chemical attacks on civilian populations became a regular feature of the Syrian civil war, the last administration timidly declared Syria to be “100 percent” chemical weapons-free (they simply determined chlorine gas wasn’t a chemical weapon). As recently as January of this year, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice asserted that the Obama administration got “the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical weapon stockpile.” This assertion was laughable at the time. Now that the U.S. government and the WHO believe the Assad regime is again using nerve agents, it’s no longer so funny.
Barack Obama never sought to resolve the Syrian crisis; he wanted to avoid it. When it became abundantly clear that he could not, he abandoned his once lofty constitutional ideals, put aside his pursuit of congressional consent to use force in Syria, and simply ordered the introduction of ground, air, and covert assets into that theater. By then, however, Russia and its Iranian allies had become so militarily enmeshed in that conflict that containing it meant risking a confrontation with a great power. The earliest days of Russian intervention in the Syrian war featured NATO and Russian military assets fighting in such risky proximity that they occasionally shot at one another. It was the closest the Atlantic Alliance has come to war with Russia in decades.
In his effort to avoid entanglement in the Syria crisis, Barack Obama rendered it impossible to resolve to America’s satisfaction. For this, he deserves all the censure we can muster. In offering his own denunciation, President Trump can be criticized on style but not substance. Those on the left who acted scandalized by Trump’s effrontery have, in fact, done precisely what he wanted Americans to do: re-litigate Obama’s record on Syria rather than his own. Rather than allow themselves to be manipulated by the White House, Obama’s defenders and the American people would be better served by acknowledging the former president’s failures and demanding to know how Trump will correct for them.
The New York Times Takes Trump’s Bait on Syria
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Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.
An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.
A long time coming.
The horrific series of events in Barcelona is yet another macabre example of what is starting to feel like Europe’s new normal. This is the era of frequent, low-tech, mass casualty Jihadist attacks, in which any ideologically driven fanatic can jump in a van or pick up a knife and inflict carnage on the streets of our cities. The former head of Mi5, Lord Evans, has predicted that the battle against this form of terrorism is likely to last for a generation.
Yet there is a certain added grotesque irony to the attacks in Barcelona. This current wave of Islamist terrorism, the so-called leaderless Jihad, has its origins in Spain. When that van sped through Barcelona’s iconic Las Rambles, plowing down innocent pedestrians, the latest incarnation of Jihadism was coming home to roost.
This kind of terrorism, increasingly familiar across Europe, was, in fact, masterminded by a Spaniard. A veteran Jihadist called Abu Musab al-Suri. Formerly part of al-Qaeda, he is understood to have parted with Osama Bin Laden. In 2005, he published what would turn out to be a hugely significant text: “the Global Islamic Resistance Call.” It would be some years before western countries would feel the full effect of the strategy outlined in this document, but it is precisely the tactics developed by al-Suri that have gone on to form the basis of Islamic State strategy and the strategy for the IS inspired attacks that we are now seeing in the West.
Abu Musab al-Suri has had a decades’ long involvement in modern Jihadism, and particularly with Islamist terrorism in Spain. The Spanish authorities have wanted al-Suri since 2003, for his role in establishing the country’s first al-Qaeda cell in the mid-1990s. However, Al Suri’s role in terrorism in Spain goes back to well before this. Spain also wants al-Suri in connection to the 1985 Madrid bombing by the Islamic Jihad Organization, in which a restaurant frequented by US servicemen was blown up leaving 18 people dead. But it is also believed that he may have had a connection to the far more devastating 2004 Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people.
Al-Suri’s jihadism took him to several conflict zones, including Afghanistan. But his most significant role has been as an ideological mastermind. During the 1990s he spent a stint living in London. From there he was editor of al-Ansar, one of the most important Jihadist magazines the time. His writings would also later be published in al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. It has even been suggested that al-Suri was ideologically connected to the 7/7 bombings, given that his writings had specifically encouraged the targeting of the London Underground.
By 2005, however, it seems that al-Suri had become disillusioned with al-Qaeda’s strategy. Its rigid, top-down structure and highly-organized, sophisticated attacks had brought about neither the desired awakening among Muslims nor the Islamist revolution the Jihadists had hoped for. In 2005, al-Suri released his “Global Islamic Resistance Call” onto the internet. Envisaging a leaderless Jihad, in which individuals or small cells would form their own organic and independent plots, they would avoid detection by not linking to a large structured network and instead used the internet to spread ideology and tactics. Crucially, al-Suri’s Jihadist manifesto stresses the importance of ultimately capturing territory to establish an Islamic state. This obscure Spanish extremist had set in motion events that would bring about the wave of terrorism being suffered today.
Al-Qaeda had hoped to function as a vanguard for triggering a much larger Islamist insurgency. But it was the rise of Islamic State in Syria that would eventually turbo charge the vision laid out by al-Suri. Between 2014 and 2016, Islamic State’s prolific spokesman, Mohammed Adnani put out a series of messages to Muslims living in the West, increasingly calling on them not to travel to the Middle East, but to instead carry out attacks in the West using whatever they had available to them; a knife, a car, poison, even a rock if need be. And Adnani told adherents in the West not to wait for instructions, but to take their own initiative and to target civilians. Like al-Suri, IS believe that through attacking civilians in the West, they can eventually bring about a clash in Europe that will rally European Muslims behind them.
In Barcelona, as with the recent vehicular attacks in London and Paris, we are witnessing the adherents of this strategy attempting to get their deranged, but terribly dangerous, plan off the ground. And in a chillingly ironic way, via al-Suri, it is a strategy that traces some of its origins back to Spain. European authorities are now engaged in struggle of trying to prevent any more of al-Suri’s vision from coming to fruition. But as the former head of Mi5 has warned us, it is a generational task we now face, and there can be little doubt that Europe is now caught up amid a new era of Jihad.
Terrorists in the wind.
While there was still blood on the streets, attackers on the loose, and victims of the terrorist event in Barcelona who had not yet succumbed to their ultimately fatal wounds, President Donald Trump went public with his half-baked thoughts on the matter. As is so often the case, those thoughts were crude and callous—implying, as he had on the campaign trail, that an apocryphal tale involving the defilement of Muslim corpses is illustrative of practices America should embrace. Political observers were fixated on those comments, not on the attack or its aftermath, as they should have been. It was, in truth, fans of the president who ignored the fact that Trump’s first impulse amid an ongoing terrorist attack was barbarous who don’t have their priorities straight.
Once the shock of the president’s comments had abated, though, it was incumbent on the country to do what the president did not: turn their attentions to Spain. 14 people are dead today. Over 80 are injured. Many nationalities are represented among the fatalities, including one American, as the terrorists targeted a popular tourist boulevard.
This was no low-tech event conducted by lone wolves. Hours after the attack in Barcelona, police in the city of Cambrils 70 miles south of Barcelona tracked down terrorists preparing to mount a companion attack. Four suspects were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with a fifth dying in hospital.
All told, 130 people were injured as a result of these attacks, 17 of whom are in critical condition.
Those would-be terrorists were wearing explosive belts that turned out to be fake, but that is only a stroke of good luck. On Wednesday night, hours before the van attack in Barcelona, a bomb went off in a house in the city’s southwest suburbs. One was killed in the process of making improvised explosives, which, had they been successful, would doubtlessly have been used in this coordinated set of attacks.
“As you look at the chronology, this was a fairly large cell, had to have been in place for a while — pretty good planning,” said George W. Bush administration homeland security advisor Fran Townsend. “If these guys had successfully executed on the explosives you can imagine instead of just – I don’t want to minimize it – using the car as the weapon, imagine if the car had exploded.”
This attack represents the first successful mass casualty terrorist event in Europe claimed by ISIS since the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa, began to fall into the hands of liberating forces. As of last week, 50 percent of the city had been retaken by coalition forces. The beating back of ISIS from the strongholds in Iraq and Syria it once occupied has compelled the terror group to change tactics. They’ve advised would-be recruits to stop making the effort to come to the Middle East and to try instead to execute terrorist attacks in their home countries. ISIS leaders have been preparing to transition the organization into a more traditional terrorist group along the lines of al-Qaeda as the territory it controls shrinks.
ISIS-led operations in the West will become more urgent as ISIS’s “caliphate” dissolves, and this deadly event in Spain is likely indicative of a forthcoming trend. The Spanish weren’t ready. If Donald Trump’s bloody revenge fantasies are any indication, he is not treating this threat with the sobriety it merits either.
The tipping point.
We are deterred.
That’s the only possible way to read the confessions of Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who inexplicably vomited out a variety of compromising thoughts in an interview with an adversarial journalist at a liberal publication. The interview is packed with juicy tidbits, but the comment with the broadest policy implications is receiving the least amount of attention. In that interview, with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Bannon confessed that the administration’s rhetorical posture regarding a conflict with North Korea is utterly hollow.
“There’s no military solution,” Bannon said. “Forget it.”
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here,” he added. “[T]hey got us.”
So much for “fire” and “fury.”
Lay observers can be forgiven for thinking this concession amounts only to acknowledging reality. It’s not exactly a state secret that North Korea’s dug-in artillery positions on or near the 38th Parallel, just miles from the South Korean capital, represent a significant deterrent threat. At no point, however, did an administration official—much less one as close to the president as his chief strategist—suggest that this threat was sufficient to stay the commander-in-chief’s hand.
The president and a variety of administration officials have made a conscious effort to communicate (both to Pyongyang and to Western lawmakers) his willingness to entertain the prospect of a preventative first strike on a narrow set of North Korean targets. The risks of such strikes, ranging from provoking a limited or full-scale retaliatory response to environmental and collateral damage, are real. That might be bluster, but it serves a utilitarian purpose.
It is unclear that the United States will accept a nuclear North Korea with the reliable capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. It’s not even clear that America will be able to live with a North Korea that can strike U.S. troop positions in South Korea and Japan, which could occur with almost no warning. Making Kim Jong-un’s regime understand that the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear-capable North Korea creates an incentive to de-escalate and head back to the negotiating table—even if those are negotiations to which the U.S. and its allies are not party.
The prospect of a first strike might have been a bluff. If that was the strategy, however, it was one to which the U.S. had committed itself. It was not Steve Bannon’s role to undermine the president and force the United States to retrench from its current position.
Even though this approach is reckless, it makes sense if Bannon’s objective was to take the prospect of preventative warfare off the table. That notion falls apart when taking into account the ostensible purpose of Bannon’s call to Kuttner, who is a trade hawk and a friend to the complaints of labor union activists: to rag on China.
“We’re at economic war with China,” Bannon said. “On Korea, they’re just tapping us along. It’s just a sideshow.” He added that, on the present trajectory, there would be an “inflection point” from which America will not recover. In 25 or 30 years’ time, he said, it will be the People’s Republic and not the United States that is the world’s global hegemon. “[T]he economic war with China is everything,” Bannon averred.
This is some pretty blatant sabotage. If the United States lacks a military solution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula, it needs a diplomatic one. The only party that can execute that objective is China, and the Trump administration has been making admirable strides in convincing China to get off the sidelines. If Bannon had his way, it seems, all progress toward compelling Beijing to abandon the Kim regime would be done away with; and all because of one man’s obsession with a glorious Sino-American trade war.
This interview was grossly irresponsible. The kind of freelancing in which the president’s chief strategist engaged in has blown the treads off the administration’s existing strategy. This was not done in service to the president or the country, but to Steve Bannon and his fanatical commitment to isolationism and protectionism. He’s done his president and his country a disservice. Steve Bannon has to go.