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America’s First Reality TV War

The Trump administration's latest missile strikes in Syria were never going to accomplish anything. But the show must go on.

Donald Trump speaks to the nation, announcing military action against Syria for the recent apparent gas attack on its civilians, at the White House, on April 13, 2018. (Mike Theiler - Pool/Getty Images)
Donald Trump speaks to the nation, announcing military action against Syria for the recent apparent gas attack on its civilians, at the White House, on April 13, 2018. (Mike Theiler - Pool/Getty Images)

One year after launching a limited strike against the Syrian government to deter future chemical weapons attacks, U.S. President Donald Trump did the same thing again Friday night. Within 12 hours, the Pentagon judged the operation as being “very successful,” which was a given since the three above-ground facilities were assuredly monitored for years and situated in a relatively low-threat air defense environment. The ability of a $700 billion military to destroy static targets is unremarkable.

What was sensational about the missile strikes was the public spectacle of it all. From Trump’s initial pledge that the Syrian government’s suspected chemical attack “will be met, and it will be met forcefully,” to the Pentagon videos showing individual missiles being launched, this was a military operation telegraphed, scripted, and executed for a 24-hour information era.

Trump’s Twitter feed provided its typical denunciation, bluff, and guidance. He assigned his latest enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the artless nickname “Gas Killing Animal,” indicated that the promised operation could commence “very soon or not so soon at all!,” and then warned Russia that the missiles “will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” The latter tweet was an accurate prophecy, as the operation featured the combat debut of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range. Over the coming week, all of these tweets framed the news coverage and pundit debates, and the always scrambling-to-catch-up statements by administration officials.

Next were the leaks of debates between White House officials ranging from those pressing for a more expansive attack, including against Iranian forces operating inside Syria, to military officials attempting to limit the strikes to only to a few facilities directly connected to the chemical weapons program, thereby avoiding direct confrontation with Iran or Russia. Trump and his new national security advisor, John Bolton, got to appear tough vis-a-vis Iran, while Secretary of Defense James Mattis and senior uniformed officials came off as level-headed and realistic.

There was also a well-publicized campaign of presidential calls and diplomatic visits to incorporate allies to better legitimize a military operation that most legal scholars would deem a violation of international law. French and British leaders Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May would strongly condemn Assad’s actions, but then only provide limited support — 17 missiles combined, to the United States’ 88 — and then only to curtail one illegal type of Syria’s lethality.

Syria and its patron, Russia, also performed their expected roles. The Syrian official news agency declared that “allegations of using chemical weapons have become an unconvincing stereotype,” despite this being repeatedly documented by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism. Soon after the missiles struck, the Russian Foreign Ministry — without any self-awareness of Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine — condemned the attack as “an absolutely groundless assault on the sovereignty of a country which is a full member of the United Nations.” The Russian Ministry of Defense then claimed that air defense systems it supplied to Syria shot down 71 of the incoming missiles. Pentagon officials pointed out that those air defense systems did not even fire until after every U.S., French, and UK missile had struck.

The Pentagon provided the necessary imagery to be instantly and continually retransmitted and circulate via news organizations and social media. These include arresting still and video footage of bombers taking off and receiving fuel en route to Syria, naval surface ships and submarines launching cruise missiles in darkness, and before-and-after damage assessment satellite photos of all three bombed sites. Two Pentagon press conferences then featured military jargon and granular details — such as the exact number and names of missiles directed at each site — filling up much of the print and cable news coverage. Joint Staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie proclaimed that the Syrian government would “think long and hard about” using chemical weapons again in light of the missile strike, echoing Mattis’s proclamation a year earlier that the “the Syrian regime should think long and hard before it again acts so recklessly.”

The strikes and their aftermath resembled a staged play, where the primary goal was less to destroy targets than to assure that cast members played out their respective roles. That this latest attack will have no operational impact on combatants involved in the Syrian civil war is beside the point. They all successfully memorized their lines, delivered them convincingly, and received glowing reviews from their intended audiences. Bravo. Let’s give Trump the closing line: “Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

About the Author

Micah Zenko is Whitehead Senior Fellow at Chatham House and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy

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