A Grain of Saul: The questions news anchors should be asking about Trump’s Syria air strike
President Donald Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles towards a Syrian government airstrip on Thursday night. One might imagine this strike — authorized without congressional approval — to be a deeply controversial move, analyzed and critiqued by political pundits and politicians across the country. Instead, Trump’s action was met with little pushback and a chorus of cheers from many on TV news.
Over at CNN, host Fareed Zakaria gushed that Trump “became president” via use of military force.
“How cool is that?” a guest on Fox News asked, referring to Trump making Chinese leaders “watch a night of American targeted bombing.”
“We not only took out a Syrian air force base, we took out a terrorist air strip,” a Fox & Friends host said, apparently unaware both that the base was operational within hours of the strike and that it was was not used by terrorists, but rather was used by government forces to mount attacks agains them.
Judge Jeanine Pirro described the attack as making “people around the world proud.” MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski called it a “show of strength.” And, of course, NBC journalist Brian Williams went viral for describing the missile launch as “beautiful” three times in a matter of seconds.
That the airstrike faced such little scrutiny is puzzling. There are plenty of intriguing and important questions news anchors and sitting politicians should be asking in the wake of the strike.
For starters, how about we ask why President Trump changed his stance? Former President Barack Obama chose not to launch a strike against the Syrian regime in 2013 after a much larger and deadlier chemical weapons attack than the one that provoked this strike. At the time, Trump repeatedly pleaded with Obama to not take action and criticized him for even considering it.
It wasn’t just Trump that seemed to have a change of heart, either. Dozens of congressional Republican politicians who urged Obama not to act in 2013 are now praising Trump for executing a plan not unlike the one proposed by the Obama administration. What changed?
News anchors could also ask how this strike may change the war on terrorism. The situation is, after all, quite complex.
While the United States backs Syrian rebels fighting the government, the U.S. and the Syrian government are united in a battle against terrorism. But in the wake of Trump’s attack, foreign journalists and the Syrian government questioned how the strike would help extremist groups. That airstrip, after all, is used by the Syrian government to bomb ISIS militants.
Andrew Exum, a Middle East scholar and a former army officer, wrote in The Atlantic that the strike would make the fight against ISIS more difficult.
Pundits also could have asked the most troubling question: what does this mean for Russian-American relations going forward?
Russian officials viewed the air strike as a disproportionate escalation. They severed the hotline that has been used since 2015 to avoid Russian and American planes from colliding in midair. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Facebook that the U.S. came “dangerously close” to a military clash with Russian forces.
Then, of course, there’s the most important question of them all: what does this mean for the Syrian people? As I wrote last week, there are plenty of perspectives on how this strike might change things in Syria, and all are worth investigating. But in order to get there, cable news needs to first get over its love of military intervention.
These questions are just the big picture concerns. There are even more granular questions to consider: did Trump make money by using Tomahawk missiles, which are manufactured by a company he owned stock in as recently as 2015? Did the missiles cost U.S. taxpayers as much as the estimated $60 million? Which Trump advisors supported the attack and who opposed it? Does the world really need to be reminded of American strength when we dropped more than 26,000 bombs in 2016?
It wasn’t all bad, though. The day after the airstrikes, once the buzz around the breaking news had passed, some channels hosted informative debates about Trump’s decision. Tulsi Gabbard and Rand Paul, two of the most well-known politicians to dissent and criticize the president, got air time and used it to ask some of these tough questions.
Thankfully, we live in a country where Gabbard, Paul and all of us are encouraged to critique and question our leaders. We live in a country where it’s those leaders’ jobs to promote their own agenda. We live in a country where we have the freedom to question them without punishment. In fact, we live in a system that doesn’t function unless we ask those questions.
As a nation, we should use that critical thinking to be sure our government is making the right decisions, and to hold them accountable when they don’t.
By A Plus’ ISAAC SAUL
You can follow Isaac Saul on Twitter at @Ike_Saul
A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.