When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

New Probe Finds Pro-Bolsonaro Fake News Dominated Social Media Through Campaign

Ahead of Brazil's national elections Sunday, the most interacted-with posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp contradict trustworthy information about the public’s voting intentions.

Jair Bolsonaro bogus claims perform well online

Cris Faga/ZUMA
Laura Scofield and Matheus Santino

SÂO PAULO — If you only got your news from social media, you might be mistaken for thinking that Jair Bolsonaro is leading the polls for Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections, which will take place this Sunday. Such a view flies in the face of what most of the polling institutes registered with the Superior Electoral Court indicate.

An exclusive investigation by the Brazilian investigative journalism agency Agência Pública has revealed how the most interacted-with and shared posts in Brazil on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and WhatsApp share data and polls that suggest victory is certain for the incumbent Bolsonaro, as well as propagating conspiracy theories based on false allegations that research institutes carrying out polling have been bribed by Bolsonaro’s main rival, former president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, or by his party, the Workers’ Party.

Agência Pública’s reporters analyzed the most-shared posts containing the phrase “pesquisa eleitoral” [electoral polls] in the period between the official start of the campaigning period, on August 16, to September 6. The analysis revealed that the most interacted-with and shared posts on social media spread false information or predicted victory for Jair Bolsonaro.

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ