Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
All the televisions in the Amsterdam airport lounge, as I write this, are tuned to news of the bombing in Syria unleashed by the United States and its allies.
One monitor glows with nighttime video of a light streaking across the Damascus sky; others show analysts and reporters, live from Syria, Russia, Washington, London. There’s video of President Donald Trump on Friday evening, announcing that the United States and its closest allies decided to strike in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack last week in Douma, near Damascus, which Washington and its allies are convinced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ordered. “These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead,” Trump said gravely. But nobody in the airport is watching.
Syria news is everywhere, except on people’s minds. The passengers, sitting in the crowded lounge’s wide brown chairs, are checking their email, streaming movies on their laptops, gazing absentmindedly at the airplanes on the tarmac. Not one among them appears interested in Syria. It seems no one thinks this nighttime assault signifies much in a war that has been raging for seven years. Perhaps they don’t think this war matters.
It’s just another moment in a conflict that has, in fact, changed the world, but has done so indirectly. In addition to destroying Syria, displacing millions and killing hundreds of thousands, the Syrian war has transformed much of the planet more profoundly and in more ways than most people realize. The fact is the war in Syria has affected lives around the world – not only in the Middle East but also in the United States and here in the Netherlands, as in rest of Europe.
The West’s largely hands-off approach created a vacuum that Russia eagerly filled, adding to Iran’s strength and alarming Tehran’s Arab foes, stoking regional rivalries, and wars.
In the West, the images of fleeing Syrian refugees helped empower nationalist politicians from Hungary to the United States, propelling a global trend toward authoritarianism. The multiple conflicts – diplomatic, political, military – have contributed to a growing turmoil in global politics, even as the incorrect impression that Syria doesn’t matter prevails. Even in Europe, that sentiment seems powerful enough to have so far smothered the instinctive reaction of popular fury that seems to spring to life whenever the United States flexes its military muscle.
It’s different this time, of course. This is not George W. Bush going into Iraq. It’s not even Barack Obama studiously pondering the pros and cons of action. This is Donald Trump, a man some here now say is so disconcerting and disturbing, they have started trying to ignore his rants.
This time, for a change, he looked serious, thoughtful and calm when announcing military action in Syria in his televised address. It was in sharp contrast with his Twitter rants of the previous days, even the previous hours, when he unleashed a stream of invective, wielding keyboard weaponry, exclamation points, all-caps, multi-tweet attacks, to lash out against James Comey, Assad, Russia and others. It was a gruesome spectacle, and further evidence of the damage his chaotic presidency is doing to America and the world on multiple levels.
By the time the attack finally came, the chaos in the White House and Trump’s legal and political problems made it inevitable to think about the phenomenon once known as the “Wag the Dog” effect, using military action to distract and build popular support by stoking patriotic sentiment for personal political benefit.
In this case, Trump’s use of force a year ago after Assad used chemical weapons lends some credibility to the latest action, suggesting it is motivated by the US leader’s visceral response to the images of the Douma attack, and his determination to define himself as the opposite of Obama. And Obama’s greatest failing was not enforcing his own “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In reality, Trump’s action looks in many ways Obamian: measured, splitting the middle, and despite the bravado, hesitant.
Trump’s latest strikes are not about Syria. They do nothing to change the equation in that malignant conflict. They are an effort to put the genie of chemical weapons back in the bottle. That in itself is a worthy goal, and one wishes Obama had acted on when he had the opportunity.
But Trump’s Syrian policy remains a muddle. Barely two weeks ago he announced he wants the small but important US contingent out. A few days later he was threatening to attack, and then he did.
After all the tweets, all the bombs, all the speeches, no one is sure what exactly he has in mind. In the meantime, the Syrian war remains as radioactive as ever. It may well spawn a war between Iran and Israel. It is adding to tensions between Moscow and Washington and between Riyadh and Tehran.
The latest bombing may change nothing. It didn’t seem to change the public’s apathy. But it will continue to reverberate in our lives, indirectly, but not subtly.