Josh Rogin is one of the mainstream media’s scribbling scribes who wouldn’t be caught dead praising President Donald Trump, not even faintly. That would get him into some deep doo-doo with his bosses at the Washington Post. So, given the fairly general and bipartisan kudos for Trump’s strike on one of Assad’s air bases last Thursday, what’s an eager-to-please, up-and-coming reporter to do?
Kinda hard, when Obama did nothing, except lie about how he got rid of Assad’s chemical weapons. But for Rogin, that’s not a problem. All he had to do was compare President Trump’s very real attack with then-President Barack Obama’s imagined one. The one that was going to be really, really, big, if only he had done something.
“What we had in mind in 2013 had many more targets and was much more expansive,” Rogin quotes one of his many anonymous sources in the Obama administration as saying. Obama’s plan was to strike six installations, and that would have been five more than the one that Trump actually did strike.
But, alas, Senator Graham told Rogin, “Obama changed his mind at the last minute and ended up not striking Syria at all.” Other than that, the two plans were exactly the same, only Obama’s was bigger and better.
I love the idea of comparing real actions to imaginary ones. The Beatles were pikers compared to what Barry Manilow coulda done if he had had any talent.
Worse still, even Obama’s imaginary actions stunk. He liked to tell his opponents what he would do, before he didn’t do it. But as Trump kept tweeting in August 2013, you don’t announce a surprise attack in advance:
Why do we keep broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria. Why can’t we just be quiet and, if we attack at all, catch them by surprise?
@walaa_3ssaf No, dopey, I would not go into Syria, but if I did it would be by surprise and not blurted all over the media like fools.
If we are going to continue to be stupid and go into Syria (watch Russia), as they say in the movies, SHOOT FIRST AND TALK LATER!
Declaring your intention to attack with great fanfare detracts from the shock and awe element that carries with it a substantial psychological effect that can be equal to or greater than any physical consequences.
Especially when your secretary of state follows up the threat with a promise that the strikes would be “unbelievably small.”
How can I explain this in a way that would be both effective and delicate? Suppose a man calls his wife from work to arrange a special date night. “Drop the kids off at your mother’s,” he suggests in his most seductive voice. “I’m planning something very special. But it will be unbelievably short.” Whatever happens after this is bound to be singularly underwhelming.
Now imagine this. The husband says nothing of his plans. He arrives home. His beloved is rinsing the lettuce for the salad. He comes up behind her, puts his arms around her, and begins to nuzzle her neck. Whatever happens after this is bound to be singularly spectacular.
The element of surprise is a force multiplier. Like a hammer or a dozen roses. It amplifies a small input into a large output.
The only reason you’d announce an intention to strike, militarily or romantically, is if the planned event were truly going to be huge. That’s because the psychological element of anticipation would then work to your benefit. Anticipation can inspire a frisson of pleasant excitement or intense fear.
Trump’s “smaller” plan was perfect for the following reasons.
First, his objective was limited. He wasn’t after an immediate regime change, for there’s no one yet who’s ready to step into Assad’s shoes and keep Syria from turning into a Libya.
Second, it made clear that the new sheriff in town was a doer not a talker. This is no Obama who, even after eight years of planning, couldn’t come up with a plan for Syria that he was ready to implement. As I suggested in an article I wrote for The American Spectator in August 2015, Donald Trump is a man who has the makings of an archetypal American Hero. I compared him to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and to the three Americans who instinctively sprang into action when a Moroccan jihadist started shooting on a packed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris and took him out with his own rifle.
Third, it established that America was still in touch with the principles that had moved its Founders and, moreover, had the power and the will to act upon them. America First does not mean that we are blind to what happens in the rest of the world. And where a leader uses poison gas on his people — including women, children, and “beautiful babies” — America will respond by doing the right thing, because it is the right thing to do in the circumstances.
Finally, an action that utilizes surprise must be followed up quickly by further action before the effects wear off. And so, the day before the strike, the administration announced that Secretary of State Tillerson would be visiting Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin the following week. It is not unreasonable to think that Mr. Putin has been anticipating Tillerson’s visit with more than a bit of apprehension. His future depends on the outcome of this meeting.
Putin doesn’t see himself as a barbarian. In fact, he considers that he’s the only remaining defender of Western civilization. I will have more to say about this in a future article. For now, it’s sufficient to note that Vladimir Putin is a great admirer of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and that Russia’s high school core curriculum today includes three of his works. Two of them — One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago — describe the inhumane treatment of prisoners under the Soviets. The third, Matryona’s House, is about a woman who struggles to reconcile her deep Christian beliefs with the communist reality under which she lives.
Yet, today, most of the civilized world believes that Putin is at least partly responsible for the barbaric gassing of Syrian civilians. So, how he handles the meeting with Tillerson will affect his legacy in a meaningful way. I don’t equate Putin with Liberty Valence. Until I see credible evidence to the contrary, I regard him as a tragic figure. I believe that Secretary Tillerson should be clear about America’s repulsion with Assad’s actions but that he should allow Putin a way to save face.
Josh Rogin’s snark notwithstanding, Trump’s plan was breathtakingly elegant in its conception and its execution. To avoid casualties, the Russians would be given 90 minutes notice to evacuate the area, targeting “aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, radars, an air defense system, ammunition bunkers and fuel storage sites.”
The Trumps would be dining with President Xi Jinping and his wife at Mar-a-Lago at the time of the operation. As the dinner neared its end, President Trump would pull the Chinese president aside for what White House aids would describe as “a brief, matter-of-fact discussion.”
And that would be that. America will have returned to History.