Essay №5: The Rally Effect (Trump and Syria)
Make No Mistake: This Isn’t About Morality
Thursday night, President Trump said the United States had carried out a missile strike in Syria in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on its civilians. While all options lead to pursuing a no-fly zone in Syria and the destruction of Syrian airfields, in order to prevent the further bombing and destruction of Syrian citizens, we must not only question the effectiveness of the military operation, but also our president’s intentions.
The intention of this article is not to examine the foreign policy and international implications of the military operation, but rather what led the President to change course and pursue an interventionist method of diplomacy that rightfully could lead to war. A method and foreign policy that is starkly opposed to his “America First” agenda.
My hypothesis in the matter, is that the President is losing to globalization and his self-interest has led him to make a decision not in the interest of the United States, but in the interest of Donald Trump’s approval ratings. With reelection and low approval ratings, our president’s willingness to go to war is rooted in bolstering nationalism. It is an attempt to raise approval ratings and garner bipartisan support in the face of false morality to increase his chances for reelection.
It is my understanding that nationalism (in the context of the United States) is a temporary political movement that comes in the form of extreme patriotism and loyalty to one’s country, with increased levels of polarized American exceptionalism. During times of war, it can create excessive confidence in a nation, their governments and their military strength. While, in the minds of the constituency, creating the false reality that their country is fair, righteous and without blame.
As popular hostility has turned towards the Trump administration, as evidence of historically low approval ratings, I fear the United States’ involvement in Syria is not out of morality or national security, rather, in a feeble attempt to bolster support around an administration that is manipulating nationalism. President Trump is using the Syrian Civil War to rally the country around our flag in support of him.
A self-glorifying myth of morality can encourage citizens to contribute to the national community, via support for the administration. This form of self-glorification can allow the president to shine and appear strong, reveled in accomplishments while countervailing their national standing. I will reiterate, this is not a discussion of whether I agree with the military operation, this is about if our president’s intention to intervene in a conflict that opposes his “America First” agenda and his previous positions on the conflict during the Obama Administration were altruistic or political.
Now, viewing the changing landscape of Donald Trump’s position from the lens of the Syrian Civil War in 2012 under the Obama Administration to the current lens, we will see a seismic shift in opinion of now, President Trump. August of 2012, is when former President Barack Obama created a “red line” for Syria, claiming the US would change their calculus and policy towards Syria if President Bashar al-Assad used or moved chemical weapons.
Almost a year later, Assad killed more than 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack on the city of Damascus, Syria. Although, crossing the “red line,” the Obama Administration chose not to strike Syria as a result of failure to receive Congressional authorization to use force. Throughout the coming month of August and September of 2013, Donald Trump was quick to jump on Twitter to relay his thoughts:
Sept. 5th, 2013, he wrote, “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix USA”
And on the same day he tweets, “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE US GETS NOTHING!”
Throughout 2015 and 2016 among the growing refugee crisis, Donald Trump again took to twitter to relate his thoughts on the international conundrum, warning about getting involved with Syria while casting a suspicious light on refugees:
November 17are-some, 2015: “Refugees from Syria are now pouring into our great country. Who knows who they are-some could be ISIS, Is our president insane?”
March 24, 2016, “Europe and the US must immediately stop taking in people from Syria. This will be the destruction of civilization as we know it. So sad!”
And furthermore, during the 2016 presidential campaign, then candidate Donald Trump moved to pin the conflict in Syria on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reiterating a similar position he asserted in the past:
October 4, 2016: “CLINTON’S FLAILING SYRIA POLICY WAS JUDGED A FAILURE: bit.ly/2ddb08P #VPDebate”
Now, in April of 2017, Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America, and has significantly changed course on his foreign policy towards Syria and his “America First” agenda. In his remarks after the most recent chemical attack, the president said, “It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” While most rational actors will agree with this statement, we must analyze the chemical attack in Syria in 2013 verses the attack in 2017 and Donald Trump’s response to each.
In 2013, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council that he believed that the attack perpetrated by the Syrian government constituted as a war crime. He cited in a UN report that, “Chemical weapons have been used in ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic…” The report under Part VI Sub section 109 of the report asserted that, “The United Nations Mission collected clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013.”
Within hours of the attack in 2013, videos and photos (WARNING: Link contains graphic images) were uploaded to the internet showcasing graphic footage of dozens of bodies, including many small children and babies, laid out in rows in places of worship, in the streets and in clinics.
A preliminary US government assessment in 2013, determined that 1,429 people had been killed in the attack, 426 of them being children. While it is easy to assume that the pressures of the presidency and intelligence briefings were enough to change the mind of President Trump, I assert that if it is truly the death of children and ‘beautiful babies’ that changed the mind of President Trump, why did 426 children who were killed in 2013 not receive the same empathy?
However, President Trump’s activity since assuming office has lead me to believe that his intention to enter Syria are out of political ambition, motivated by low approval ratings and his obsession with his own self-image. 29 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, we saw him enter a state of “permanent campaigning"; an idea that suggests campaigning as a form of governance.
Trump held a campaign rally for 2020 less than a month into his presidency in Melbourne, Florida. His press secretary Sean Spicer even called it a campaign event. Yet, how does this correlate with Trump’s drastic change in position and wiliness to intervene in Syria? Coupled with historically low approval ratings and amounting opposition from the public, Democrats and members of his own party, reelection looms in the distance for Donald Trump.
I believe Donald Trump’s shift in policy towards Syria and willingness to intervene is the president’s attempt to increase his approval ratings and unify the country around him in order to assist in his reelection campaign by bolstering nationalism in the country around a common cause.
Wars and crises have historically been shown to bring the country together and rally the citizens of the country behind the leader, otherwise known as the “rally effect." For example, according to Gallup polls, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings increased 35 to 40 percent points in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, reaching 90% and sitting comfortably in the upper 80s in the months that followed. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy’s approval ratings in early October 1962 was 61%, and by the end of the crisis it rose to 73%. During the Iran hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings rose 26 percentage points to 58% approval.
Donald Trump is looking to take advantage of the “rally effect” with the Syrian Civil War, so that he can gain increased popular support in order to help reduce criticism of the administration and reelection. Again, whether you agree with the nature of the operation is not the question at hand. We must consider the president’s intentions and if he is truly making decisions which reflect the best option for Syrian civilians and US national security, or for his 2020 campaign. It is important to keep this in mind when looking to understand President Trump’s change in position, because make no mistake, this wasn’t about morality.