Prior the actual attack on Syria, those who were vaguely left, like Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Joy Behar, and more, speculated luridly, daily, relentlessly, as to whether Trump's problems with sex would arouse him to fire off missiles. Would there be, they asked, a "Wag the Dog" moment. When the missiles were flying, they asked again, was it "Wag the Dog?" Over on Fox, Sean Hannity said that those in the mainstream media were pushing an "unhinged" narrative that Trump was having a "Wag the Dog" moment, though Sean knows that all that Trump does is canine-free, and certainly would never have a piece of tail wag him.
My personal complaint is that not one of them sent me a check. They didn't even have the courtesy to mention that there was a book, first—mine!—and then there was a movie, based on it. Quite loosely.
My punditry complaint is that—while it may be true—it distracts from the real issues.
It is true that Trump's troubles and the slow, daily, incremental march to—What? An impeachment? An indictment? Will Jared be his fall guy and go to prison for his father-in-law? Eric, Don Jr., Ivanka, up on charges? Who will turn on Don the don? Cohen? Manafort? Flynn? Wherever it's going, it has supplanted "House of Cards" as the great political crime drama of our times. Even the sex is more perverse and lurid than it was in fiction. It is understandable, from a commercial perspective, why television news is all Trump all the time, but has the rest of the world disappeared?
Yes, but, well, is it? A "Wag the Dog" thing?
Bashar al-Assad is a genuinely bad man. He has done and continues to do horrific things. The gas attacks are not something new. They've been happening for some time.
He uses cluster munitions that are also banned by international law. He uses incendiary weapons, banned for use around civilian populations. It was the worst kind of totalitarian regime under his father, Hafez al-Assad, and continued to be under his own rule. His secret police are among the most feared in the world. Torture has always been a feature of the regime. Well over 100,000 people have been detained and disappeared.
The civil wars in Syria are the worst humanitarian disaster in modern times. There are nearly half a million dead. Best estimates are that there are six million internal refugees and another five million who have fled the country. They've flooded across the borders into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. From there, many have tried to make it into Europe.
So, yes, we would have to say that firing missiles at Syria at this moment, in response to this particular use of chemical weapons, is a completely arbitrary choice in reference to what Assad has done. Therefore, it should be thought of as prompted by domestic political considerations. Even though what Trump says bears no relation to what he does, and it's often sensible to think of a Trump statement as if it's part of a game of opposites, and attempting to analyze Trump-speak within the grid of normal politics, we can note that he campaigned on getting out of the wars in the Middle East and he quite recently said he was going to take US troops out of Syria. So, something jarred him from that to this, though we have no way knowing if it was seeing pictures of the dead and dying on Fox News or watching Stormy Daniels on "60 Minutes."
It would be a good thing if the missile attack got to Assad to stop using chemical weapons. But it probably won't.
If it did, it still wouldn't be a consequential matter for the Syrians. All the rest will continue: civilians—including children—will continue to be killed, maimed, traumatized, and sickened.
What would be a real—and long-term—solution?
How about removing Assad? The US just cut off the heads of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the Europeans, they let Qaddafi be deposed in Libya. Are things better or worse for the people of those countries? Seriously? You need to think about that?
Those results—which include the dissolution of Syria—force us to ask what would come next? Who would the replacement be? An Ahmed Chalabi, who sounds good to the West, but disappears quicker than morning mist? A group that turns out to be some variety of Al Qaeda or Iran's Revolutionary Guard at heart?
What group would unite Syria? Or would any group just be the focus of the next civil war? When the US tried to arm what they thought of as a pro-democracy, sort-of-semi-secular group, all the money, all the guns, and all but a handful of the group disappeared.
America dares not even support the Kurds—the group most aligned with US attitudes and apparently most able to run a stable region—because of the Turks.
Assad has proved himself to be stubbornly and successfully dug in. It would require significant land forces to dig him out. He also has two important allies, Russia and Iran. Russia remains a major nuclear power. Iran proved in the Iraq-Iran war that they will fight and they're willing to take tremendous casualties if they need to.
If we got through that, then what?
The US has basically had two successful regime changes, Germany and Japan after World War II. They are the constant reference points and the basis of the fantasy that we can replicate them. What we should really understand is that a successful occupation has three requirements: (1) All the young men must be dead. (2) The occupied population must believe that it's their own damn fault. (3) The occupation force must be so massive that no opposition gets started. None of that will happen.
What is happening in Syria is a horror. Everyone who cares about humanity as a whole should want it stopped. Arguing about whether a strike by Trump would be a "Wag the Dog" moment is the loud, barking noises of TV commentators chasing ratings like dogs after foxes, and a sad, though indirect, reminder of how empty and vacuous the discussions have become about a real and endlessly painful set of events.