Almost exactly 10 years before launching a Tomahawk missile strike against a Syrian air base, Donald J. Trump enjoyed a similar triumph in an internationally televised, pay-per-view spectacle called the “Battle of the Billionaires.”
Staged as the culmination of a widely hyped “feud” between Trump and World Wrestling Entertainment mogul Vince McMahon, the event featured Trump in a business suit tackling his rival on the ring apron. Trump pummeled his rival with some of the weakest fake punches in professional wrestling history. Smirking and swaggering, he then plunked McMahon in a chair in the center of the ring and shaved his head.
Now I don’t want to shock anybody, but professional wrestling feuds are purely scripted theatrical events. Let Wikipedia explain: “Feuds are often the result of the friction that is created between faces (the heroic figures) and heels (the malevolent, ‘evil’ participants). Common causes of feuds are a purported slight or insult, although they can be based on many other things, including conflicting moral codes or simple professional one-upmanship.”
Which brings us back to Syria. Because if it would be irresponsible to call the events of last week as stage-managed as “WrestleMania 23,” it would also be naive to ignore their theatrical aspects. First, because neither the Assad nerve gas atrocity nor the U.S. response had any real military purpose. The Syrian dictator and his Russian backers have been winning the civil war, bombing hospitals and slaughtering thousands of civilians without resorting to banned weapons. Assad’s only imaginable motive would have been to convince rebel factions of his absolute ruthlessness — which they already believe.
Supposedly, however, the Russians had persuaded Assad to surrender his biochemical arsenal back in 2013, after President Obama’s ill-considered “red line” blunder. How, then, with Russian soldiers all over the remote air strip where the gas attack was allegedly launched, could Vladimir Putin not have known what was going down?
And why would Assad have defied the Russians? Last week’s barbaric strike killed a reported 84 civilians in a rebel-held Syrian village. In contrast, the 2013 chemical assault that prompted Barack Obama’s anger took 1,400 lives — an outrage that troubled Trump hardly at all.
Reasoning that Assad’s enemies were Sunni extremists like ISIS, Trump sent out a series of Twitter messages urging Obama to lay off.
“AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER,” he wrote “DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”
Never mind that Obama ultimately agreed with Trump about the risks of involving the U.S. in yet another war in the Middle East. “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin,” he tweeted in October 2012, “watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”
A month later, Obama was re-elected easily.
Meanwhile, “If he [Trump] can reverse himself on Syria,” writes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, “he can reverse himself on anything.”
But back to Vladimir Putin. Assuming for the sake of argument that the Russian strongman did know about Assad’s plan to use nerve gas against his own people, why would he let it happen?
Consider what has taken place. By playing the heel, Putin has allowed President Trump to enact the role of hero: launching an almost purely symbolic, militarily insignificant strike against Syria.
“When I take action,” George W. Bush famously said after 9/11, “I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
Trump went camel-hunting, carefully warning the Russians (hence the Syrians) about the exact time and place precision-guided missiles would strike. Not that it was the wrong thing to do. While few Americans would have minded the U.S. sending a drone strike into Bashar al-Assad’s bedroom window, that would risk intensifying Syria’s many-sided, 6-year-old civil war.
And yes, Hillary Clinton was urging Trump on.
“You’re going to end up in World War Three over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton,” Trump said last fall. “You’re not fighting Syria any more, you’re fighting Syria, Russia and Iran, all right?”
But that was then. This is now.
Meanwhile, Trump’s son Eric may have inadvertently given the game away. “If there was anything that [the strike on] Syria did,” he told a British reporter “it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie.”
We’re also not supposed to notice that Vladimir Putin’s the one calling the shots.