Why Trump chose this moment to get outraged at Syria is a bit of a mystery. After all, it's not like Syria and Russia haven't been engaged in brutal war crimes for a while.
There is a geostrategic narrative as well as a purely domestic political one. The geopolitical story is that Iran, Syria, and North Korea are all engaged in pushing the boundaries. If the other kids start bullying you, maybe the cheapest deterrent is to beat the crap out of the weakest one, or at least bloody his nose. This might give the others pause. North Korea is clearly the most dangerous one right now, but direct action against it is incredibly risky. Of course Syria is Russia's bitch, so there is plenty of risk there too.
The agony of Donald Trump — well, one of the many agonies — is that there are times when he will actually do the right thing, or at least a defensible thing, and we’ll be left wondering, even more than we did with other presidents, about what his motivations were, whether they fit into any truly considered plan or whether his actions amount to the newest episode of a continuing reality show.
Such is the case with the strike against Syria, which is too big a risk in too complicated a place to be used for distraction, for diversion, for the pose he needs in the narrative du jour.
There’s justification for it, absolutely. President Obama had advisers who wished he’d done something similar, and there were Democrats aplenty — Hillary Clinton apparently among them — who found his restraint when it came to Syria and the regime of Bashar al-Assad to be infuriating, a surrender of America’s role and moral authority in the world.
But Trump’s military action makes little sense in the context of most of what he said in the years before he was elected and much of what he has done as president so far. Let me get this straight: Obama wasn’t supposed to draw or be drawn across a red line, not even when the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but when the regime did that on Trump’s watch, it crossed “many, many lines,” in his words, and compelled an American response?
Well maybe it does. One of the things he rebuked Obama for was drawing a red line and then backing down. He's determined not to make that same mistake.
The readiest answers unsettle me. It’s impossible to ignore the degree to which the military strike pushes a slew of unflattering stories about the Trump administration — its failed attempt to undo Obamacare, the feuding within its ranks and, above all, the probes into possible collusion between Trump’s associates and the Russian government — to the side of the page. Nothing drowns out scandal like the fire and fury of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
The notion that military action salvages a president on the defensive, boldly underscoring his role as commander in chief, is nothing new. But there’s a fresh wrinkle in this case, because those bombs put Trump at particular odds with Russia at a moment when there’s enormous advantage in that.