Donald Trump's April 6 missile strike against a Syrian airfield, purportedly in response to photos of injured children from President Bashar al-Assad's April 3 sarin nerve gas attack against his own people in Idlib province, was not only a dizzying reversal of policy in only three days, but also a possible harbinger of things to come, most likely in Iran.
The missile strike came just two days after the release of a Quinnipiac University poll showing Trump's approval rating at a historically unprecedented 35 percent for a presidency less than 90 days old. His 3 to 1 negative rating was mirrored in a March 29 Gallup poll. In response, his aides cooked up something they billed as "leadership week" to introduce Trump as Commander-in-Chief as he was also meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Iran is Assad's strongest backer next to Russia. Any military engagement in Syria increases the chance of direct conflict with Iran. And under Trump, the US is already engaged in a series of aggressive actions against Iran that may be designed to trigger a war.
The Danger of Trump's Failing Presidency
As Trump's knee-jerk decision to strike "the pose he needs in the narrative du jour" by attacking Syria clearly demonstrates, there is palpable danger that the precedent of provoking war for purely political reasons that was established under the presidency of George W. Bush could be reproduced under Trump in a much more condensed timeframe.
Fearing a descent into unelectability as Bush's approval ratings plummeted in 2002-2003, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and the White House Iraq Group manufactured the political strategy of making Iraq a nuclear weapons threat and declaring war in early 2003 to improve Bush's chance of election in 2004. It took Bush two years of declining polls before he resorted to war as a political remedy.
Trump's approval ratings have collapsed to historically unprecedented levels after less than three months in office. His disapproval ratings are already approaching 60 percent.
Having surrounded himself with hawkish generals, there is a risk that Trump will use war as a political remedy much more quickly than Bush did if current public opinion trends continue. The Syria attack may be the first in what could quickly become an escalating series of foreign policy aggressions.
As columnist Ruth Marcus has observed, "Trump's fury over everything from paltry inaugural crowd counts to falling poll numbers does not portend a trusty hand when the challenge comes, whether from China, Iran, North Korea, Russia or elsewhere."
The corporate media are so obsessed with Trump's calculated Twitter provocations, there has been insufficient coverage about the possibility that before Syria gave him an easy opening for quick military action, he appeared intent on provoking war with Iran as a means of salvaging his presidency; nor is there sufficient outcry about the prospect of a new "limited use" nuclear weapons doctrine ending up in Trump's hands.
Flirting With "Limited Use" Nukes
In December 2016, a report by the Defense Science Board (DSB), a blue-ribbon Pentagon panel, recommended "modernizing" the US nuclear arsenal to develop "a tailored nuclear option for limited use."
Following his January executive order for a nuclear posture review, Trump issued a call in February for "modernizing" and expanding US nuclear weapons capability that echoed the language in the DSB report, saying, "We're never going to fall behind on nuclear weapons capacity." In addition to a proposed $54 billion increase in military spending, Trump has stated that he wants to be "unpredictable" about nuclear weapons, and that "the power, the destruction is very important to me."
Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis have seen the DSB report and appear to be flirting with a new doctrine of limited nuclear warfare. Sounding the alarm in a March 3 editorial in The Washington Post, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), outlined the danger that such a doctrine presents, calling it "terrifying" given "President Trump's comments in support of a nuclear arms race."
Provoking War With Iran
The alignment between Iran and Russia in Syria is a serious obstacle for an administration that wants to strike Iran. Russia's enormous nuclear weapons capacity makes it essential to decouple them from Iran. Accordingly, it was widely reported in April that the United Arab Emirates had facilitated a January meeting between Erik Prince, Blackwater founder and brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and representatives for Vladmir Putin, "in hopes of encouraging Russia to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria."
Although the details of these meetings are not known, in only a few short days in January and February, Trump took a series of actions aimed at unraveling the rapprochement with Iran that led to a nuclear arms inspection agreement signed by Iran, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and the US during the Obama administration in 2015. Highlights include:
- January 27: Trump signed a travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries that included Iran.
- February 1: Then National Security Adviser Gen. Mike Flynn made a public statement announcing that the administration "was putting Iran on notice" after a legal Iranian missile test.
- February 2: Asked how he might respond to the Iranian missile test, Trump said, "Nothing's off the table."
- February 3: The administration implemented new economic sanctions against Iran.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen. The potential interdiction seemed in keeping with recent instructions from Mr. Trump, reinforced in meetings with Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, to crack down on Iran's support of terrorism.
Mattis wanted the interdiction to move forward, but the Times says that he "ultimately decided to set the operation aside, at least for now. White House officials said that was because news of the impending operation leaked."
The Iranian ship was in international waters. Confronting and boarding it would have been an act of war. Yet the only thing that prevented the interdiction was a leak to the press.
Mattis is obsessed with Iran and convinced that its leaders must be forcefully confronted. As head of US central command (CENTCOM) in 2011, he argued for "a direct strike inside Iran" and proposed that the US "launch missile strikes to take out either an Iranian power plant or an oil refinery" in retaliation for what Mattis believed, without clear evidence, was Iranian backing of militia groups that had killed US soldiers.
Even drone-happy Barack Obama thought Mattis was too recklessly obsessed with Iran and fired him. Mattis now seems to have found a president who is willing to act on his anti-Iranian instincts. As a result, the US is deeply engaged in military action against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen and Syria, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has pledged full support for Trump's continued pressure on the Iranian regime.
If this sounds alarmist, it is because it needs to be. The Iraq War that was started in order to salvage the failing presidency of George W. Bush has now destabilized half the planet half the planet. It was created with the same kind of bombast and threat inflation that is already coming out of the Trump administration. This is not a lesson that the US and the rest of the world can afford to learn anew.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) has correctly observed that the Trump presidency has created "a civilization-warping crisis of public trust." This crisis will continue to deepen even among his core supporters as Trump leaves a trail of abandoned campaign promises and investigations widen into his financial conflicts of interest and Russian connections. Trump's false allegations of treasonous wiretapping by a former president may also spur an investigation, with legal scholars saying they constitute an impeachable offense.
Some polls show nearly 50 percent public approval for Trump's impeachment.
Impeachment would only be a start in the long and difficult process of rebuilding a republican civic society driven by citizens, not ideologically deranged billionaires. But without it, there may be nothing left to rebuild.