President Donald Trump couldn't help himself. He kept voicing his disgust at the fact that the Assad regime had gassed civilians. Even "little babies," the president repeated. He was clearly moved by the scenes of the latest atrocity from the demon of Damascus.
I suppose it is a good thing that the president is capable of empathy. His dominant personality trait is usually narcissism, so the fact that he was moved by the suffering of others represents a kind of personal advance. Tears are almost always evidence of growth. One wonders why he is not equally moved by the images of immigrant children exposed to cruelty, or to the victims of U.S. bombs.
Still, let us get hold of ourselves. The press fell all over themselves praising the president's speech to Congress in February, despite the fact it was filled with falsities and bigotry. The fact that he did not throw a tantrum seemed to be enough to clear the low bar for presidential leadership Mr. Trump has set. The fact that he was horrified by horror is not, in and of itself, a triumph of such leadership.
President Donald Trump is applauded by Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., while delivering his first address to a joint session of Congress Feb. 28 in Washington. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo pool via Reuters)
Presidential leadership requires empathy to be sure, but in this cruel world, there is much to which the empathetic heart and finely tuned conscience take note. The test of political leadership is not the capacity to feel, but the capacity to decide what to do about the horror. Bombing an airfield with fifty Tomahawk missiles, and doing so in such a way that the airfield was in operation the next day, may not be an adequate response.
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The bombing was the equivalent of puffing up one's chest. It did not meaningfully harm the Assad regime. It did not cripple Assad's chemical weapons program. Stopping Assad will require more, but it is far from clear that President Trump intends to do more.
President Barack Obama failed the test of presidential leadership when it came to Syria. He drew his famous "red line in the sand" against the use of chemical weapons but when Assad used them anyway, and the United States seemed poised to take action, President Obama flinched. He asked a Congress incapable of exercising responsibility to take responsibility for military action, giving himself a pass. In the future, he will look back at his decision as President Bill Clinton looked back at his inaction in Rwanda, as a signature stain on his record.
What was needed then, and what is needed now, is not a simple answer but it is not an extraordinarily complex one either. The United States and its allies should impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Such an imposition is not without risk, to be sure. But, if we want to remove the Assad regimes principal advantage in Syria's civil war, and curtail the influence of Russia as well, a no-fly zone would eliminate the ability of Syrian planes to drop chemical bombs and of helicopter gunships to attack the forces trying to topple Assad.
There will be no peace in Syria so long as Assad is in power. America has no appetite for ground troops on a scale used in Iraq to topple the regime of Assad's longtime Ba'athist ally Saddam Hussein. (Had we deployed a no-fly zone in Iraq after the first Gulf War, hundreds of thousands of Shiite and Kurd civilians might still be alive.) The civil war in Syria is a war in which it is very hard to imagine a U.S. intervention would be helpful and easy to imagine ways in which it would do more harm than good. But, a no-fly zone would rob Assad of his principal asset, control of the skies, and it is a thing worth doing. It might give the opposition a chance to topple his regime.
It is not clear Trump thinks in such terms. It is not clear that he understands the complexity of this, or most, situations, from health care to foreign policy. We do know that he placed a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office soon after his inauguration. I am sure he admires Churchill's pugnacity, and knows little about Churchill's long history in virtually every sphere of government before he became Prime Minister. Be that as it may, I would commend these words of Churchill's, written at the time of the Munich tragedy, to our president as he thinks about the relationship of moral responsibility and personal empathy to political leadership, not because I agree with them entirely, but because they underscore the gravitas of such leadership:
The Sermon on the Mount is the last word in Christian ethics. Everyone respects the Quakers. Still, it is not on these terms that Ministers assume their responsibilities of guiding states. Their duty is first to so deal with other nations as to avoid strife and war and to eschew aggression in all its forms, whether for nationalistic or ideological objects. But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their fellow countrymen, to whom they owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definitive conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded. If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used. And if this be so, it should be used under the conditions which are most favourable. There is no merit in putting off a war for a year if, when it comes, it is a far worse war or one much harder to win. These are the tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout its history been so frequently impaled. Final judgment upon them can only be recorded by history in relation to the facts of the case as known to the parties at the time, and also as subsequently proved.
There is, however, one helpful guide, namely, that a nation keep its word and to act in accordance with its treaty obligations to allies. This guide is called honour. It is baffling to reflect that what men call honour does not correspond to Christian ethics. Honour is often influenced by that element of pride which plays so large a part in its inspiration. An exaggerated code of honour leading to the performance of utterly vain and unreasonable deeds could not be defended, however fine it might look. Here, however, the moment came when Honour pointed the path of Duty, and when also the right judgment of the facts at that time would have reinforced its dictates. (The Gathering Storm, p. 320)
Churchill could not have foreseen the day when the United States would be led by a man with such a peripatetic intellect. There would be greater comfort in Trump's discovery of empathy if it was accompanied by some sense that he appreciated the relationship between personal emotions and political decision-making. The cool Obama was capable of bad decisions, to be sure, but never thoughtless ones. The fear about Trump is that his newfound emotive capacity may simply lead to erratic, and irresponsible, actions. The nation needs adult leadership as well as a leader that is no mere narcissist. I fear that the learning curve is too steep in Syria, as in North Korea, for this man of such obvious inadequacies. His tears are a good thing, but the nation needs more.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at The Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]