Bill Moyers: Instead of Rebuilding America, Trump Bombs the Middle East

After Trump unleashed missiles on a Syrian airfield, members of Washington’s national security establishment and elite pundits swooned.

Bill Moyers

Our institutions bend and buckle and approach the breaking point from benign, blind or willful neglect—and above all, from a leadership vacuum. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Bill​Moy​ers​.com.

"How is it Trump seems to care the least for the very folks who voted for him? Not a day passes that he doesn’t betray some of them."

It’s been a week now since Don­ald Trump once again became our president.

Here’s how it happened.

After he unleashed mis­siles on a Syr­i­an air­field, mem­bers of Washington’s nation­al secu­ri­ty estab­lish­ment and elite pun­dits swooned. Top Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans led the way. Good sol­diers all in the mil­i­tary-indus­tri­al-polit­i­cal com­plex, they stood smart­ly at atten­tion and salut­ed the com­man­der-in-chief for send­ing a mes­sage to the world, although exact­ly what the mes­sage meant remains far from clear.

The head­line above Glenn Greenwald’s sto­ry at The Inter­cept summed up the response: The Spoils of War — Trump Lav­ished with Media and Bipar­ti­san Praise for Bomb­ing Syr­ia.” The hawk­ish Hillary Clin­ton, who long had been crit­i­cal of Barack Oba­ma for not bring­ing Bashar Assad to heel, appeared at an event”—and this was before the bomb­ing even hap­pened!—“and offered her cat­e­gor­i­cal sup­port for what Trump was planning.”

Up in the choir loft, the media and pun­dits sang as one from the offi­cial hym­nal, prais­ing Trump’s pres­i­den­tial moment” and trans­form­ing him from a pathet­ic dun­der­head suf­fer­ing from nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­i­ty dis­or­der into the Lord of Hosts. It was CNN’s Fareed Zakaria who pro­nounced the deci­sion to fire away as the big moment” when Don­ald Trump became pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.”

The the­atrics were per­fect. The Pen­ta­gon shopped to the media a video of the mis­siles as they were loft­ed up and away. MSNBC’s Bri­an Williams was among those moved by the aes­thet­ics of vio­lence: We see these beau­ti­ful pic­tures at night from the decks of these two Navy ves­sels in the East­ern Mediter­ranean. I am tempt­ed to quote the great Leonard Cohen: I’m guid­ed by the beau­ty of our weapons.’”

When I heard those words, I thought back to that night in 2003 when anoth­er pres­i­dent lit up the skies over Bagh­dad with the shock and awe” of his air attack on Iraq. Sud­den­ly the press was talk­ing about George W. Bush as if he were George Wash­ing­ton, George Mar­shall and George Pat­ton rolled into one. A touch of George III came lat­er, as our new­ly refur­bished pres­i­dent donned a flight suit and strut­ted aboard the air­craft car­ri­er with the ban­ner behind him that read: Mis­sion Accom­plished.” Not quite.

Then a more recent scene and anoth­er mirac­u­lous moment came to mind, from six weeks ago — Feb. 28, to be exact. Don­ald Trump spoke to a joint ses­sion of Con­gress. He paused, point­ed to the bal­cony and rec­og­nized the wid­ow of the Navy SEAL who was killed dur­ing a raid on an alleged ter­ror­ist com­pound in Yemen, the very first mil­i­tary mis­sion dis­patched into harm’s way by the brand-new com­man­der-in-chief himself.

That mis­sion went bad­ly, so much so that at least two dozen local civil­ians, includ­ing women and chil­dren, were killed. Trump did not men­tion them. He focused on hon­or­ing the griev­ing wid­ow in the bal­cony who was try­ing, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to hold back her tears as wave after wave of applause rolled across the House cham­ber and ric­o­cheted from wall to wall.

Time mag­a­zine’s White House cor­re­spon­dent tweet­ed that the speech was the clear­est exam­ple Trump is begin­ning to own and under­stand the pow­ers of the office.” The next day, The Wash­ing­ton Post’s White House bureau chief tweet­ed, This is the best morn­ing of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­cy. He is bask­ing in pos­i­tive pun­dit reviews. All that tumult [of the pre­vi­ous month] feels like yes­ter­year.” Politi­co’s man on the scene admir­ing­ly described it in a tweet as Trump’s Rea­ganesque moment.”

And over at CNN, lib­er­al com­men­ta­tor Van Jones called it,

one of the most extra­or­di­nary moments you have ever seen in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, peri­od… And for peo­ple who have been hop­ing that he [Trump] would become uni­fy­ing, hop­ing that he might find some way to become pres­i­den­tial, they should be hap­py with that moment… He did some­thing tonight that you can­not take away from him. He became pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.” [ital­ics mine]

I under­stand what these peo­ple were say­ing — that although con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly Trump had become pres­i­dent when he was inau­gu­rat­ed four weeks ear­li­er, he had not metaphor­i­cal­ly made the leap into the per­sona expect­ed of him. He did not fit the myth­i­cal image of a pres­i­dent we pre­fer over the real thing. Above all, he had yet to put on a suf­fi­cient­ly good show (the crowd at the inau­gu­ra­tion was not much larg­er than his two under­sized hands clasped togeth­er). Nor had the estab­lish­ment pun­dits ful­ly weighed in with any sem­blance of sup­port, and with­out their bless­ing, Trump was obvi­ous­ly just a usurp­er who could bare­ly read a speech, even with a teleprompter.

But after the dra­mat­ic spec­ta­cle of that Feb. 28 speech, the white smoke rose from the chim­ney: Amer­i­ca at last had a pres­i­dent who could act the part even if his cronies were rip­ping out the plumb­ing, strip­ping the wiring and cart­ing it all off in Uber cars.

Alas, the eupho­ria of that night was not to last. Once again it evap­o­rat­ed as fast as the truth on Kellyanne Conway’s lips. Trump quick­ly returned to gov­ern­ing by anar­chy. Chaos again ruled the White House. Wreck­ing crews installed by Ban­non and Priebus at fed­er­al agen­cies con­tin­ued their blood­baths. Trump’s state of mind once again became the sub­ject of much spec­u­la­tion. Trump’s health care reform” went down in flames. His pro­posed bud­get explod­ed on con­tact with real­i­ty. Con­flicts of inter­est lit­tered the city like cow pat­ties in a pas­ture. The atmos­phere stank like a fetid swamp, the one Trump has made no attempt to drain. And his pop­u­lar­i­ty dropped low­er than any pres­i­dent so ear­ly in the game.

Yet after the bomb­ing a week ago, Trump tow­ers again. Fifty-nine cruise mis­siles — tom­a­hawks — were all it took.

Mind you, there is lit­tle to show for the attack. The air­base was open the very next day. Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Assad may be forced into a tighter embrace as Don­ald chills on Vladimir — and vice versa.

And real­ly, what was the big deal, any­way? As Glenn Green­wald wrote,

The CIA has spent more than a bil­lion dol­lars a year to arm anti-Assad rebels for years, and the US began bomb­ing Syr­ia in 2014 — the sev­enth pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim coun­try bombed by Oba­ma — and nev­er stopped. Trump had already esca­lat­ed that bomb­ing cam­paign, cul­mi­nat­ing in a strike last month that Syr­i­ans say destroyed a mosque and killed dozens. What makes this lat­est attack new is that rather than alleged­ly tar­get­ing terrorist’s sites of ISIS and al-Qai­da, it tar­gets the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment — some­thing Oba­ma threat­ened to do in 2013 but nev­er did.”

Trump will be tempt­ed to do it again, because he likes big booms and espe­cial­ly if such thun­der­bolts gain him adu­la­tion from hard-lin­ers in the nation­al secu­ri­ty com­plex and the press.

There will be oppor­tu­ni­ties because even if Assad stops using chem­i­cal weapons, he will no doubt con­tin­ue to pum­mel what remains of Syria’s civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. As Ilan Gold­en­berg, a for­mer State Depart­ment offi­cial, told The Huff­in­g­ton Post: You’ll see many more pic­tures of beau­ti­ful [Syr­i­an] babies [dying] on TV — specif­i­cal­ly to humil­i­ate the Unit­ed States and show the feck­less­ness of mil­i­tary action.” In oth­er words, Trump is about to find out why Oba­ma avoid­ed mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Syria.

Mean­while, here at home, our insti­tu­tions bend and buck­le and approach the break­ing point from benign, blind or will­ful neglect — and above all, from a lead­er­ship vacuum.

One exam­ple: our trans­porta­tion infra­struc­ture. A week ago, as Trump & Com­pa­ny plot­ted the attack on the Syr­i­an air­field, here in the North­east cor­ri­dor of America’s vast trans­porta­tion sys­tem a sec­ond train derail­ment in two weeks again plunged hun­dreds of thou­sands of com­muters into nail-bit­ing, life-upend­ing chaos.

It began as a minor derail­ment at Penn Sta­tion, the hub of our tran­sit net­work, but like a spi­der web, every­thing tran­sit-relat­ed is so con­nect­ed in these parts that the upheaval quick­ly spread to Long Island and New Jer­sey and then to the cor­ri­dor between Boston and Wash­ing­ton, DC. The New York Times called the calami­ty anoth­er reminder of the decrepit, ten­u­ous state of much of the region’s infra­struc­ture and tran­sit systems.”

You would think this would be a pri­or­i­ty of Don­ald Trump. He grew up in New York. He knows the cru­cial role of mass tran­sit. He spins a good spiel on infra­struc­ture. Yet for all this, he has reject­ed an Oba­ma-era pro­gram that would have fund­ed long-range improve­ments to our region­al infra­struc­ture, even as he pro­pos­es huge tax breaks for builders and real estate devel­op­ers like himself.

He also wants to increase defense spend­ing by $54 bil­lion and pro­pos­es to slash non-mil­i­tary spend­ing by a cor­re­spond­ing amount. This includes slic­ing funds for Amtrak and tran­sit and com­muter rail pro­grams across the coun­try. The Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Rail Pas­sen­gers esti­mates the cuts of fed­er­al fund­ing for Amtrak’s nation­al net­work of trains would dras­ti­cal­ly affect ser­vice to 23 states and 144 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, many of them in rur­al towns in the Mid­west and the South, includ­ing my home town in East Texas which went for Trump by an over­whelm­ing major­i­ty — and I mean overwhelming.

How is it Trump seems to care the least for the very folks who vot­ed for him? Not a day pass­es that he doesn’t betray some of them.

And instead of bomb­ing anoth­er coun­try, how about build­ing our own with bet­ter bridges, rail­roads, high­ways and air­ports, how about tend­ing to those who need jobs and homes, how about health care that real­ly gets the job done?

Then we might final­ly achieve the trans­for­ma­tive moment when even Don­ald Trump at last becomes pres­i­dent for real. But don’t hold your breath. It is fool­ish to expect any­thing like this from a man-child who plays with America’s des­tiny as if it were a rag doll in his gild­ed crib.

Bill Moy­ers is the pres­i­dent of the Schu­mann Cen­ter for Media and Democ­ra­cy and the host of Bill Moy­ers Jour­nal on PBS.
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