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Shakespeare Vs. Trump

We’ve long noticed that one of President Donald Trump’s many peculiar tendencies is to “tweet” or tell a television camera whatever happens to be on his mind at the moment. His most die-hard supporters have always loved his “tell it like it is” style, but we’ve always thought it ill-suited to the presidency. Our preference is for Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” to “give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any un-proportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.”
Trump clearly has no patience for such old-fashioned and highfalutin advice, however, and thus often winds up “tweeting” or telling a camera something that is quite different from what was on his mind at an earlier moment. The latest example once again involves the bloody and damned complicated Syrian civil war, and America’s even more damned complicated role in it, and shooting from the hip has so far proved a poor tactic.
After the Syrian dictatorship apparently launched another deadly chemical attack on in its citizens recently, Trump “tweeted” and talked tough. He denounced the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad as an “animal,” and went so far as to criticize by name Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for his pro-Assad role in the civil war. By Wednesday he was “tweeting” that “Russia vows to shoot down any all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
All of Trump’s critics on the left were of course horrified by such bellicosity, but so were many of the die-hard supporters on talk radio and internet sites who had cheered his “tweets” of a few days earlier about pulling out of the Syrian civil war altogether. That earlier “tweet” had already been talked back considerably by various more careful administration spokespeople, and by Thursday Trump himself was “tweeting” back his more recent imminent threats. “Never said an attack on Syria would take place,” Trump implausibly “tweeted,” adding “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
On our way home with some fish tacos from the great Tacos Lopez drive-through over on West Street we heard one of the anti-immigrant and isolationist talk radio hosts claiming credit for talking Trump into his latest strategic retreat, but we’d like to think it was due to the more informed and deliberative advice of the surprisingly sound Defense Secretary and United Nations ambassador and potential next Secretary of State that Trump somehow has on hand, and we hope even that wild-eyed but experienced third national security advisor who came on board Wednesday. There’s a strong case to be made for enforcing a red line against chemical attacks, especially if we’re able to cobble together the international support that Trump’s administration is reportedly seeking, and we’re open to any arguments for washing our hands of the whole mess, but we think it best that wiser and more knowledgable people than ourselves carefully deliberate these matters before the president “tweets” about them.
We certainly wish those wise old hands well. The Syrian situation is complicated enough, and Trump is making tough demands on a nuclear arms treaty the Iranian theocratic dictatorship even as he’s signaled he intends to hand them Syria on a silver platter, and that whole thing with Russia is pretty damned complicated, too. On the other side of the globe Trump is engaged “twitter” feuds and diplomatic dances with the North Korean dictator, and has lately refrained from taunting him as “Little Rocket Man,” and has been talking and “tweeting” tough about trade negotiations with our ostensible allies in democratic South Korea. The stock markets have sighed a green arrow sigh after Trump lately “tweeted” back his earlier tough talk about a trade war with China, and there are reports that he’s even considering reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Barack Obama had negotiated with China’s neighbors. Trump had long been critical of multilateral trade agreements in general, and ones negotiated by Obama in particular, but given the howls of pain coming from the stock markets and agricultural states and various other export industries it suddenly seems a more sensible approach to dealing with China’s undeniably unfair business practices than all-out trade war.
There’s some faint cause for hope, therefore, that some semblance of a more or less effective foreign policy might emerge from all this. We can’t imagine Trump coherently explaining it to the world, though, and count on lots of incoherent “tweets” and televised statements further complicating things along the way. He probably won’t hear it, bout our advice is the same the Bard might well have said ┬áto Trump, to give thy thoughts no tongue nor “tweet,” nor any un-proportioned thought your action. As for the part about not being vulgar, we hold out no hope Trump will heed that sage advice.

— Bud Norman

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Gut Instincts and Complicated Situations

President Donald Trump promised on Monday that within 24 to 48 hours he will announce a “major decision” about the Syrian dictatorship’s recent chemical attack on its own citizens during that country’s long and bloody civil war. “Nothing is off the table,” Trump added, and he promised “It will be met, and met forcefully.”
So for the next 24 to 48 hours, if not much longer than that, one can only speculate what that forceful response will be. He’ll be getting advice from his newly-installed and third national security advisor, a recent Secretary of State, several brass-laden generals, and a United Nations ambassador who’s proved pretty savvy, but they’ll be laying out unsatisfactory options and Trump tends to go with his gut rather than expert advice. Trump’s gut is hard to predict in this case, because it’s a damned complicated situation.
The long and bloody war in Syria is being waged against the second-generation dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which no decent person likes, but is backed by the military might of the Iranian theocracy, which no decent person likes, as well the mightier military of the Russian dictatorship, which even Trump is lately having second thoughts about. On the other hand, one of the various factions waging war against Assad is the Islamic State, the head-chopping and crucifying bunch that has supplanted al-Qaeda as the world’s most deranged Islamist terror gang, and no decent person likes them. There are other factions, too, including those plucky Iraqi Kurds who have sustained the sort of democracy that President George W. Bush envisioned when he launched the second Iraq War. You’ll even find some factions who purport to be fighting for something like modernity, although they seem to have the lesser hand.
You’ll also find a few thousand American troops in the mix, and they find themselves in an especially damned complicated situation. They were first sent there by President Barack Obama, whose incoherent foreign policy had once dismissed the Islamic State as the “JV team” of Islamist terrorism and praised Assad as a “reformer,” then went to a limited war against both, and they’re still there in the Trump administration’s incoherent foreign policy, which had boasted that it will soon pull all American troops out of the theater after their great victory over the Islamic State but is now promising a forceful response to the Assad dictatorship’s outrageous chemical attack on its own people. In both administrations American troops have clashed with both Assad and Islamic State forces, and it’s always been clear who they’ve been against, but never quite clear who they were for.
Even the simplest wars are complicated enough, but in this case all the political implications will be mind-boggling for Trump’s gut. He ran for president on the promise to be even more isolationist than Obama, and went far further in criticizing the Bush-eras of Republican foreign policy, but he also derided all of his presidential predecessors as a bunch of wimps who’d gone easy on Islamist terrorists and the Syrians and Iranians, even as he gave the Russians a pass, so it’s hard to say what his gut tells him now.
One of Obama’s most conspicuous and poll-damaging foreign policy fiascos was declaring a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons and then failing to back it up after the Assad regime gassed its own people for a second generation, and Trump got bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls after he responded to another chemical attack with a relatively harmless cruise missile strike on Syrian airbase. That didn’t deter Assad and his allies from the most recent attack, though, not after Trump announced he would soon be pulling all American forces from the theater, and another missile strike might not have the same political effect.
Trump might choose to wage a more aggressive war against the Assad regime, then take all their oil, as he’s talked about, which would be as tough as he’s always promised to be, but it would also break his promises about being even less Bush-ian than Obama, and more recent promises about pulling all forces out of Syria. Waging a more aggressive war against the Assad regime entails a more aggressive war against the Iranians and Russians, and despite Trump’s tough talk his gut doesn’t seem to have the stomach for that. As for taking their oil, Syria actually doesn’t have much of it, and it would be a violation of the same Geneva Convention as Assad’s gas attack.
Diplomatic pressure could bring the world’s dislike of both the Assad dictatorship and it’s allies and what’s left of the Islamic State to inflict greater economic damage, but Trump also ran against international coalitions, and is lately threatening hardball negotiations with all our trading powers, so even that surprisingly strong UN ambassador is going to have a problem pulling that off.
Trump is rightly if pettily noting that all of his presidential predecessors failed to avert the damned complicated situation he finds himself in, and we have to admit it is a damned complicated situation. None of the available responses seem satisfactory, even if you leave Trump’s naked political self-interest out of the equation.
Any country’s chemical attack on its enemies, especially its people, is an affront to international law and human decency that cannot go unchallenged. Lobbing a few missiles at an empty air base won’t do much, though, and a war to effect regime change will entail all the things Trump criticized about the Bush years. That Obama-like promise to pull all American forces out is already proving problematic. All of which is further complicated, of course, by the ever expanding “Russia thing” here at home, which has lately required a harder administration stand against Russia.
The only thing we’ll bet on is that our erstwhile Kurdish and putatively pro-modernity allies will wind up losing, and that the outcome won’t be happy for anyone involved. Still, we’ll hope for the best.

— Bud Norman