A cocktail of nerves and electricity swashed inside me when I entered the voting booth on the sixth of November. I just then old enough to vote, and what a time it was to cast my first ever lot! Between the wedge-issue baiting, war-mongering Hillary Clinton and the renegade, subtly astute Donald Trump, my decision came easily to me. Still, the idea of picking the victor who would Make America Great Again seemed impossible, almost overwhelming.
Mr. Trump’s historic victory and his first year in office, needless to say, were pleasant surprises. But this past week has challenged my hope for Trump’s presidency. His military posturing with the missile strike last year could have been excused as a show of power against China and North Korea. But the deployment of multiple air carriers, canceling of all non-essential meetings, and appointment of odious chicken hawks like John Bolton? A wholly unnecessary war is upon us.
But I’d like to contrast this possible failure of Trump with his success in North Korea. If his presidency implodes, we should feel disappointment, but recognizing his successes should be just as important as recognizing his flaws, if for no other reason than to blossom a better candidate in the future. Additionally, learning how his rhetoric and maneuvering eased relations with an unequivocal enemy of the United States may spark some hope that the man is smart to either play with our expectations. Failing that, I could at least show why moral concerns need to be balanced with an acceptance of reality.
The North Korean state oppresses its people in ways Bashar al-Assad could only dream. Whatever you think about the Syrian civil war at this moment, recognize that the citizens of that country at least have arms and internet access to use as tools of rebellion. North Korea’s suppression of even the most passive form of resistance, coupled with the testing of chemical weapons on its own people, should convince any military interventionalist concerned by human rights violations that we ought to put a stop to what North Korea is doing. Aren’t all the arguments for a U.S. presence in Syria centered around the same moralism, after all?
Trump, thankfully, knows what he’s doing with Kim Jong Un and his cabinet. Stepping back, how do you take Trump’s attitude with them? Do you see him acting as though they were bloodthirsty psychopaths willing to drown themselves in a rain of fire and death if it also meant hurting everyone else involved?
Quite the opposite. The United States has offered an olive branch to North Korea just as it presented a big red button on the other hand. The assumption made by Trump and advisers when negotiating with Mr. Un is that the man is a rational agent. The dictator is many things－power-hungry, callous, obstinate－but suicidal? Not at all.
We’ve seen success in that front because our administration is willing to humanize Un. This, of course, is difficult to do. But it’s the smart thing to do if you want to get anywhere with diplomacy.
That said, our current imbroglio with Syria－and, more importantly, Russia－appears to stem from a complete unwillingness to view Mr. Assad as anything more than an incompetent maniac. We are supposed to accept that, even after repeated warnings not to attack his own citizens, that he would throw any chance that his leadership survives the civil war aside and satisfy some twisted bloodlust?
May I ask: if Assad was a crazy and impulsive as we have to imagine him as to justify attacking him, how on Earth did he survive long enough to even raise to power in the first place? His own father could have just disowned the lunatic, or one of his generals could have lead an easy coup. But, alas, such common sense does not fit with the accepted narrative of, “Assad the butcher,” or “Animal Assad.”
Trump, I think, is observant enough to see the holes in tall-tales and experienced enough to know that an ounce of rationality is required to maintain power. Thus, it’s unlikely that he truly thinks Assad is beyond diplomacy. That leaves two options in explaining why he wishes to exacerbate tensions in Syria.
Option one is that Trump might desire a chance to talk with Assad, but other other domestic and foreign obligations necessitate that he play the part of the aggressor. The missile strike last year occurred contemporaneously with Chinese discussions. The proposed attack now corresponds with a trade war with China, the march towards the U.S.-Mexican border by South American caravan, and continued progress in North Korean relations. Action in Syria sends a message to all three parties: the U.S. is capable of violence and willing to commit to violence. This sort of big-stick politicizing isn’t elegant, but it’s effective with enemies.
Trump, though, may not have based his motivations on sheer pragmatism. Considering the first missile strike reportedly took place because of the honorific images of gassed women and children Trump was subjected to, he might very well think he needs to end the suffering. There’s certainly evidence that Trump is a person driven by his morals. He’s put himself at physical risk defending others and helped people whom he had nothing to gain from before. Simply put, Trump may just be too compassionate for his own good here.
There’s evidence for either option. We could assume Trump has remained rational and hasn’t abandoned the possibility of peace. He would understand that the main threat is Russia and that witless abandon in Syria pushes us ever closer to nuclear conflict with Russia. With such a clear mind leading us, it might finally be announced, after this pretend conflict, that we will completely pull out of Syria and alleviate our animosity with Russia.
Or we might operate with the second option and come to the grim conclusion that Trump is willing to risk the safety of the United States to right the wrongs festering in Syria. Perhaps he’d go farther and attack Russia for daring to ally with such a despicable regime. The question of why he never acted against North Korea’s reprehensible actions will grow ever more mute in the cacophonous soundscape of war.
Only time will tell which sounds we hear next.