Unwarranted Hysterics

A general view of damaged buildings in Jouret al-Shayah, Homs

In the aftermath of President Trump’s decision to shell an installation in Syria, someone viewing my Facebook feed with no wider context would be forgiven for concluding that the world was ending. Indeed, noted alarmist Glenn Greenwald said,

But U.S. war fever waits for nothing. Once the tidal wave of American war frenzy is unleashed, questioning the casus belli is impermissible. Wanting conclusive evidence before bombing commences is vilified as sympathy with and support for the foreign villain (the same way that asking for evidence of claims against Russia instantly converts one into a “Kremlin agent” or “stooge”).

War fever? Several days later the US has stood by its stated intention not to escalate. While it is fair to note that I have the mighty perch of hindsight, I can look down from it because I did not rush to deluge the internet with purple prose about how this was some sort of overture of war. Greenwald’s piece has other problems; it uncritically repeats Assad’s account of what happened—so much for objectivity!—and misrepresents Canada’s position on the bombing—likely a function of rushing to press. While Greenwald could have raised serious concerns in a serious manner, he was more interested in scoring points against his favorite boogeyman.

Common Dreams echoed many people by suggesting that this was a “wag the dog” moment:

Now, as many foreign governments, U.S. lawmakers, and the corporate media are lining up in support of the bombing campaign, observers say it appears like a ‘Wag the Dog’ moment for Trump, distracting the opposition while conveniently flipping the script about Russia. In a column on Friday, The Nation’s Greg Grandin pointed out that with the one assault, the president successfully splintered the Democratic resistance, won the praise of the media, and changed the story of his friendly relations with the Kremlin.

This extraordinary narrative is ultimately supported by…nothing. While Trump does seem to have briefly changed the narrative, the idea that a swift and timely response to the use of chemical weapons was deployed months after the Russia scandal started taking out members of his cabinet is pure conjecture. While I won’t deny that there was a gross rush to fawn over the President, the moment was fleeting and met with backlash.

Linda Stasi at The New York Daily News posited that this was to help Trump’s approval rating.

If President Trump actually cared more about the Syrian genocide than his own popularity, he would never have tried to ban Syria’s suffering “beautiful babies” and their families—twice—from entering this country. Which he did, and it was horrific. If President Trump genuinely cared more for the suffering Syrians being starved and tortured in unbelievably Dark Ages refugee camps than his own approval ratings, he would have acted sooner to help stop the ongoing genocide, which has claimed nearly half a million people — including tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims. Which he didn’t and it was horrific.

I don’t especially want to slow down those pointing out the President’s rank hypocrisy; the “Muslim ban” is very much at odds with his rationale here. (Though, this grossly flattens the situation in refugee camps, while often bad, down to Assad’s torture complexes, easily worse.) That said, this is far from conclusive. It might just be, as Ezra Klein at Vox suggests, that the president has an impulsive strategy. That doesn’t warrant praise, but it’s not a cynical scheme either. Which is worse? pft! They’re both pretty bad.

Even with hindsight, though, left-wing publications are sounding the alarm about a “rally around the flag” effect. Slate ran a headline, “Donald Trump’s approval ratings are up because he bombed a foreign country”. By how much? Well, they declined to print that, instead linking to data that shows, with some even deeper digging, that since the end of March he’s gained 3 points. There are a number of possible reasons for that, not the least of which is statistical uncertainty; the two findings are almost statistically equal. FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate polling, as of writing, has him up half a percentage since the bombing. If that’s even real, you can expect perhaps a little more as more polls roll in. Far from uncritically rallying around the flag, what the CBS data shows is that there is a gap between people who support this particular policy and people who support the administration as a whole. But, when did “data” ever stop Slate from publishing a liberal narrative?

This is not to say there aren’t fair, savvy critiques of the President and his actions, including embedded in the pieces I skewered above. I share the left wing reservations about what the endgame in Syria even looks like, concerns about Trump’s governance, and outrage at his hypocrisy on this issue. But there is a terrible irony that warnings about jingoism have become a dogma all their own. Watching Stop the War prioritize their dogmatic position by speaking over Syrian commentators has been as painful as it is emblematic. Again, if you have a good reason to criticize the actions the President is taking, this is piece is not aimed at you.

But too many commentators have been fitting the facts to their narrative and not the other way around.

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