According to the latest Bob Woodward book, Trump’s first instinct in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in 2017 was unsurprisingly excessive and unhinged:
After Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.
Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.
The anecdote rings true. Trump is an impulsive and vindictive person, and he is quick to propose military action as the answer to many problems. We see that in his reckless talk about military intervention in Venezuela, and we see it in his deranged threats to obliterate other countries. Trump is belligerent and bullying, and he routinely has to be restrained from indulging his inclination to launch attacks. It is bad enough that the president is so eager to resort to the use of force. What makes it particularly worrisome is that there will come a time when the usual suspects in Washington will be braying for “action” and demanding that the president “do something” about this or that crisis. Instead of trying to rein in the president’s horrible instincts, his advisers and Cabinet will end up egging him on to plunge the U.S. into yet another unnecessary war.
Just yesterday Trump issued what sounded like an ultimatum to Russia, Iran, and Syria:
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2018
We may hope that this is just empty rhetoric, but if it isn’t the president is putting the U.S. in the absurd position of risking war with at least three governments for the sake of the remnants of an insurgency that has already lost. No U.S. interests would be served by doing this, and the risk of escalation with one or more of these governments is far too great. Instead of making irresponsible threats that he cannot back up without risking a major war, the president should be ending our illegal military presence in Syria.