For Trump, What’​s Really Driving About-Face In Syria?

A pensive Trump?
A pensive Trump?
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON — It is either a turning point or a welcome aberration that President Trump found the cruelly extinguished lives of Syrian children to be compelling (or at least contributory) in his decision to use force in Syria. The nerve gas attack by the Bashar al-Assad regime, he said, "crossed a lot of lines for me . . . innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies."

Much of Trump's appeal during his presidential campaign was based on dehumanization — the characterization of migrants as criminals and refugees as terrorist threats. This is the first instance I can recall of Trump showing public empathy for the lives of foreigners. It was jarring in its humanity. Trump engaged in the humanization of Syrian war victims. And that merits praise.

In one moment the president also did something that President Barack Obama could not manage in five years — to be provoked or revolted enough to act decisively in Syria. Obama's tolerance for mass atrocities — for the Assad regime's use of weapons of mass destruction, torture, forced starvation and barrel bombs — was rooted in a tendency rather than a doctrine. At every point of decision during years of Syrian protest and civil war, Obama magnified the risks of action and miniaturized the prospect of gain. This series of indecisions fit Obama's inherent cautiousness. But it also added up to a bad case of Iraq War Syndrome — a fear of inalterably escalating engagement.

Until a few days ago, Trump was firmly in the same camp. Before becoming president, he did something of ambitious irrationality — accusing his predecessor of being too engaged on Syria, too tempted by involvement. "What will we get for bombing Syria," he tweeted during Obama's red-line crisis in 2013, "besides more debt and a possible long-term conflict?"

What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 29, 2013

So how do we explain Trump's head-snapping inconsistency on this issue? It is worth noting that Trump did leave himself an out of sorts — a possible basis for action — buried in his old tweets on Syria. "We don't have the leadership to win wars or even strategize," he argued, raising the possibility that a different president might possess such skills. Trump clearly views himself as the change he has been waiting for.

This, however, is probably too cynical. Seeing the corpses of Syrian children as a private citizen may provoke feelings of anger and helplessness. When a president sees the corpses of Syrian children, he is by no means helpless. When some moral norms are violated, it is not only the perpetrator who incurs responsibility; it is the bystanders as well. It seems that Trump felt this burden. And it is a sign that maybe, just maybe, the office has begun to shape the man.

Whatever his motivation, Trump's military actions have moved beyond the Iraq War Syndrome. And they represent a defeat for global Bannonism — the search for stability through the cultivation of despots and strongmen.

We still have no idea whether Trump's military response was a moral impulse alone or a policy change. A symbol or a strategy. We know that Trump is capable of impulsive ad hockery. There is less reason to be confident he is thinking three, four or five steps down the road. Does this signal a new attitude toward Russia's expanded role in the Middle East or to the status of Assad in Syria's future? Will every future mass atrocity gain such treatment? And why, when you think about it, is the crime of using nerve agents against civilians more heinous than killing them with forced starvation or barrel bombs?

The specter haunting U.S. foreign policy is not so much the Iraq War as the Libya debacle. The imminent destruction of Benghazi provoked a moral and military response from Obama — an air campaign that worked well in its initial stages. But little thought and fewer resources were devoted to the follow-up. And what resulted was a jihadist playground.

The problem with Obama's Syria response was not just its moral bankruptcy or its lack of credibility. It was a woefully inadequate response to the largest strategic and moral challenge of our time — the collapse of sovereignty at the heart of the Middle East, with radiating effects throughout the region, Europe and beyond. And this failure would not have been rectified by a few dozen guided missiles.

Our current president will find that a Tomahawk missile is not the equivalent of a particularly nasty tweet. It is the conduct of war against a foreign power. And it demands a strategy of equal seriousness.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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