We don’t know if President Donald Trump was purely motivated to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield. Was he genuinely horrified by the nerve-gas attack on a rebel-held town ordered by dictator Bashar Assad? His strongest critics insist that Trump saw the revulsion at the deaths of the innocents, including children, really and cynically as an opportunity to boost his approval ratings, which have spiraled ever downward during the constant embarrassments that have defined the earliest days of his administration. There is no way to know.
He wouldn’t be the first president whose commander in chief actions raised that same woeful question. In August 1998, Bill Clinton ordered a missile attack of his own, against the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Khartoum, Sudan. He contended that it supplied chemical weapons to al-Qaida, although there has never been any actual proof of that, to this day. What is a fact is that it took place on the day that Monica Lewinsky was scheduled to testify before a grand jury in connection with, well, you know. Suddenly, the intense news focus shifted from a Washington courthouse to across the world.
I know this because, during my CNN phase, I covered the various Clinton scandals and was set for another day of live shots, tons of them, to service all the news networks in the Turner Broadcasting empire. Then came word from the White House of the rain of missiles on Khartoum, and suddenly I had nothing to do. No live shots for me. I couldn’t buy airtime. More than once I’ve quoted a colleague who observed, “We (the news networks) can only overcover one story at a time.” It was all Khartoum, all the time.
To this day, we don’t have any idea how the Monica factor influenced the Clinton calculations, any more than we do about Trump’s incentives. As a distraction, it ultimately didn’t work; four months later, President Bill Clinton was impeached. As for President Donald Trump, the early positive responses literally gushed. Suddenly, the pundits couldn’t be ecstatic enough about how Trump had been soooooo commander in chiefish, even the ones who had just moments before described him as soooooo buffoonish.
It didn’t take long, though, for the ones who hadn’t been totally caught up in the personalities of this administration, or the lack thereof, to start raising substantial questions about the long-term effects this jolt of decisiveness would have. Would it hasten the tattering of U.S.-Russian relations, even as charges continued to swirl about The Donald and The Vladimir colluding to push the election Trump’s way? Was the withering Russian response in the face of American chest-beating just rhetoric, or did it escalate the chance of a physical collision between the superpowers’ forces on the ground in Syria? Would the cruise-missile attack cause Assad to think he had to prove his manhood with another attack, either on U.S. forces or with some other horrific provocation. As a defiant gesture, he quickly launched another bombing attack from the same airfield, which was no big deal, but could all this escalate out of control?
As it stands now, the vengeance for the war crime and the grotesque deaths it caused has amounted to a few blown-up Syrian jets. Some optimists contend that it could even become a basis for some diplomatic negotiation that ultimately could hasten an end to a bloody war that has claimed a half-million lives, to say nothing of creating a flood of refugees. How can we forget that the President Trump who was so moved by the Syrian victims of nerve gas is the same President Trump who tries to block any of them from entering this country after fleeing their deadly homeland?
Some of these questions will be answered only in the days and months ahead. The ones about motivation, as we learned with Bill Clinton, will probably never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone. The fact that they are asked at all speaks volumes about our politics.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.