Proportionally Responding Till the End of History
When President Donald Trump recently decided to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Al-Shayrat Airfield in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack likely carried about by Bashar al-Assad’s government against Syrian civilians in the town of Khan Shaykhun, the whole thing seemed eerily familiar, like an old episode of television we’d seen somewhere before. As it turns out, this is because it literally was once an episode of television — specifically the third episode of the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, titled (with Sorkin’s characteristic subtlety) “A Proportional Response,” first broadcast on October 6, 1999.
In the episode, the Syrian government inexplicably shoots down an unarmed American transport plane, killing 58 Americans. Martin Sheen’s President Josiah Bartlet then agonizes grandiloquently about the virtue of a proportional response (with long asides about Roman History and American Exceptionalism). At one point, he considers bombing Damascus’s international airport and killing thousands of civilians, though his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry talks him down and convinces him to listen to the military industrial complex and conduct a proportional response instead — striking two ammo dumps, an abandoned railroad bridge, and a Syrian intelligence agency, in a plan known as “Pericles One” (once again, with that classic Sorkin subtlety). Bartlet eventually relents and does what Leo and the military says, and the audience is meant to feel proud of American Democracy, having witnessed their fictional Commander in Chief conduct national security with a rationality reminiscent of the Athenian Statesman himself.
Today, however, Aaron Sorkin’s 43-minute-and-30-second moral lesson is about as cathartic as a network sitcom, and built on the same absurd logic — specifically the 1990s’ End-of-History ideology made popular by the misguided political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who argued that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the apparent victory of capitalism the world had reached its ideological end point and could no longer be subjected to major historical change. In Fukuyama-esque fashion Sorkin projects a world outside the reality of historical time and then imagines with a game theoretician’s certainty that a simple proportional response can solve any seemingly complex international issue, rendering it as self-contained as an episode of television. The larger questions that a historian might ask, such as how many Syrians died in the proportional response, or whether the Syrian government would proportionally respond back, or why they even shot down the American plane in the first place, go completely unanswered — though, of course, this doesn’t matter, since the credits are now rolling, and next week we’ll be in a new world with a plot arc of its own, similarly excised from history and long-term notions of cause and effect.
Like Aaron Sorkin’s characters, the various cable news pundits who analyzed Trump’s proportional response did so without any historical context, focusing instead on how how Trump “became President” (again) and how the attack would “send a message” to Assad, as if the missiles Trump has fired are just an episodic plot arc of a 1990s television show with only short term effects, or else objects of purely aesthetic beauty that exist only in 10-second clips of dazzling white light. One would think that between Brexit and Trump, 2016 of all years had finally put an end to Fukuyama’s ideology, and that November 8 had signaled the clear victory of narrative historical explanations like the long-term economic decline of the industrial Midwest and the long-term rise of conservative movements over the statistical wonkage of Vox explainers and Nate Silver line graphs and, of course, Hillary Clinton herself, who along with her proxies conducted her campaign with the same ahistorical logic of one of Sorkin’s proportional responses, imagining that like American Exceptionalism, her victory was inevitable. But only a few months into 2017, it’s clear we still live under Fukuyama’s specter. Once again the talking heads gather around cable news roundtables, discussing proportional responses and pointing to cropped maps of Syria, acting as if the only two events in the whole of Middle Eastern history were the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack on April 4 and Trump’s retaliation on April 7, and not realizing that this has all happened before, not just on The West Wing, but in real life too, in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. It’s our favorite television show, brought back for another set of self-contained episodes, as is the current fashion.
Of course, for Syria, history has never ended. Since independence in 1946, the country has seen military coups, popular uprisings, a failed union with Egypt, the rise of the Ba’ath Party, its takeover by Hafez al-Assad, growing tensions between Islamic and secular forces, massacres of civilians, an intervention in Lebanon, conflicts with Israel, and, ultimately, the current Civil War, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more, and which is very clearly the result of all these long-term historical forces. Thus, Trump’s proportional response is not just an isolated retaliation for a single chemical attack, but another link in the line of cause and effect stretching from the present back to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty that drew up Syria’s borders, and likely long to before that. It’s too much to fit into an episode of The West Wing and apparently also into an episode of cable news. But the parabolic arc of a tomahawk missile doesn’t simply end like a self-contained story arc of an episode of television — it hits earth, scatters concrete, kills people, makes history.