New York Times:
. . . showy actions that win a news cycle or two are no substitute for actual, coherent policies. Indeed, their main lasting effect can be to squander a government’s credibility. Which brings us to last week’s missile strike on Syria.
The attack instantly transformed news coverage of the Trump administration. Suddenly stories about infighting and dysfunction were replaced with screaming headlines about the president’s toughness and footage of Tomahawk launches.
But outside its effect on the news cycle, how much did the strike actually accomplish? A few hours after the attack, Syrian warplanes were taking offfrom the same airfield, and airstrikes resumed on the town where use of poison gas provoked Mr. Trump into action. No doubt the Assad forces took some real losses, but there’s no reason to believe that a one-time action will have any effect on the course of Syria’s civil war.
In fact, if last week’s action was the end of the story, the eventual effect may well be to strengthen the Assad regime — Look, they stood up to a superpower! — and weaken American credibility. To achieve any lasting result, Mr. Trump would have to get involved on a sustained basis in Syria.
Doing what, you ask? Well, that’s the big question — and the lack of good answers to that question is the reason President Barack Obama decided not to start something nobody knew how to finish.
So what have we learned from the Syria attack and its aftermath?
No, we haven’t learned that Mr. Trump is an effective leader. Ordering the U.S. military to fire off some missiles is easy. Doing so in a way that actually serves American interests is the hard part, and we’ve seen no indication whatsoever that Mr. Trump and his advisers have figured that part out.
Actually, what we know of the decision-making process is anything but reassuring. Just days before the strike, the Trump administration seemed to be signaling lack of interest in Syrian regime change.
What changed? The images of poison-gas victims were horrible, but Syria has been an incredible horror story for years. Is Mr. Trump making life-and-death national security decisions based on TV coverage?
One thing is certain: The media reaction to the Syria strike showed that many pundits and news organizations have learned nothing from past failures.
Mr. Trump may like to claim that the media are biased against him, but the truth is that they’ve bent over backward in his favor. They want to seem balanced, even when there is no balance; they have been desperate for excuses to ignore the dubious circumstances of his election and his erratic behavior in office, and start treating him as a normal president.
You may recall how, a month and a half ago, pundits eagerly declared that Mr. Trump “became the president of the United States today” because he managed to read a speech off a teleprompter without going off script. Then he started tweeting again.
One might have expected that experience to serve as a lesson. But no: The U.S. fired off some missiles, and once again Mr. Trump “became president.” Aside from everything else, think about the incentives this creates. The Trump administration now knows that it can always crowd out reporting about its scandals and failures by bombing someone.
So here’s a hint: Real leadership means devising and carrying out sustained policies that make the world a better place. Publicity stunts may generate a few days of favorable media coverage, but they end up making America weaker, not stronger, because they show the world that we have a government that can’t follow through.
And has anyone seen a sign, any sign, that Mr. Trump is ready to provide real leadership in that sense? I haven’t.