Trump, Niebuhr, and the Bombing of Syria

Scott Paeth,
Religious Studies, Depaul University

10 April 2017

President Donald Trump’s decision to bomb Syria on April 6th in response to a chemical weapons attack exposes the moral rot at the heart of the Trump administration.


Rather than demonstrating a principled stand on behalf of the victims of a horrific war crime, it shows yet another dimension of Trump’s venality and self-obsession, his disregard for constructive and effective policy making, and his incoherence with respect to the purpose and function of the U.S. military in promoting American foreign policy.

Behind the scenes photo of Trump & National Security Council reviewing Syrian chemical attack footage.

Source: CNN

Taken on its own, the bombing seems to be a perfectly appropriate response to a vile act on the part of the Assad regime. News reports focused on the proportionality of the bombing and the way in which it discriminated between military and civilian targets. In this respect, it would seem to be consistent with a standard “just war” reading of morality, one with which Reinhold Niebuhr is often (though not wholly accurately) associated.

Yet, this reading of the attack both gives Trump too much credit and lets him off the hook too easily for abetting the gas attack itself.

In the first place, the bombing seems to be as much the result of personal pique on the part of Donald Trump as it is about enforcing international sanctions against chemical weapons. Trump had long taken a hands off approach to Syria, arguing that it was not the responsibility of the United States to overthrow Bashar al Assad, that it was none of our business, and that the Obama administration, in urging Congress to approve a more robust military engagement with Syria, was leading us into an unnecessary war. Appealing to his nativist and isolationist base of support, he insisted that Assad was the Syrian people’s responsibility to deal with, and even went so far as to suggest that the flood of refugees coming from Syria (particularly the men), should have stayed behind to overthrow the government.

As recently as last week, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House Spokesperson Sean Spicer suggested that the Trump Administration had no interest in overthrowing Assad. Assad met these assurances with the decision to gas his people. It was only in the aftermath of this attack that the Trump administration abruptly shifted position and declared itself in favor of the regime change that they had long criticized the Obama administration for supporting.
Was this because Trump had finally gotten religion on Assad’s corruption? Even given Trump’s notorious lack of attentiveness to political realities, I think this is a hard conclusion to reach. Anyone with even a minimal grasp of the facts on the ground in Syria has known that the Assad government is brutal and tyrannical. If Trump was unaware of this, then he lacked even the most basic qualifications to express an opinion on Syria — and if he was aware of it, then this latest example should have come as no surprise to him.

So why the decision to endorse regime change? And why the decision to bomb?

I think this goes back to Trump’s self-description as a “counter-puncher.” He was inclined to leave Assad alone to kill as many of his own people using conventional weapons as he desired. He said as much. His spokesperson said as much. His Secretary of State said as much. If Assad had simply taken “yes” for an answer, all would have been fine. But Assad decided to test the boundaries of his permission with this gas attack. And Trump took that as a personal insult, a thumb in his eye, and so he had to respond, not because of a moral objection to anything Assad did, but because now Donald Trump’s reputation was on the line.

Reinhold Niebuhr was well acquainted with the way in which our own capacities for self-deception and delusion lead us to mask our own self-interested acts in the guise of morality. The massive power that Trump wields as the President of the United States does not make him less susceptible to the temptation of self-delusion, and his well-attested character traits of narcissism and egoism mean that he is nearly certain to equate morality with what serves his own self-interest. Trump’s utter lack of self-reflection and self-criticism prevents him from distinguishing between the two. Assad, having offended Trump’s self-regard, was no longer subject to Trump’s indulgence. He made the enemies list.

Trump should get no credit for enforcing international agreements against the use of chemical weapons, because this attack wasn’t about that. It was about puffing up Trump’s ego and self-conception as a “tough guy.” But I think we need to go farther. Had Trump not played footsie with Assad from the beginning, had he not soft sold the American position on Syria, and had he not insisted on a hands-off approach, this gas attack would not have happened. If he had insisted on a continuation of the Obama administration policies with respect to Syria, Assad would not have felt empowered to push the boundaries of his own brutality. Thus Trump bears more than a little responsibility for the gas attack itself.

Syria is a mess. One can have legitimate objections to increased U.S. involvement in the conflict without being morally obtuse. But Trump’s earlier insistence on staying out was as incoherent as his new insistence on going in. It was not based on an understanding of the facts on the ground, or on a strategic conception of our goals and objectives, both with respect to our foreign policy generally, or with respect to Syria in particular. Whatever happens in the days and weeks to come, to the degree that the situation worsens in Syria, it will be at least in part because the American President does not have the first idea how to govern. And if we find ourselves embroiled in the Syrian conflict, Trump’s incompetence guarantees that it can only end in massive tragedy, both for us and for the Syrian people.

Scott Paeth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.
He is the author of 
The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians, published by Westminster/John Knox Press.

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