Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic urge caution over attack and express doubts Donald Trump had thought through its implications
By Roy Greenslade / The Guardian / April 10, 2017
Right action. Wrong actor. That was the majority reaction to Donald Trump’s missile strikes in Syria among UK newspapers. Editors could not bring themselves to echo the government’s unequivocal backing for the US president’s belligerent response to the chemical attack attributed to Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Their grudging praise was qualified by a large measure of skepticism and, in some cases, outright cynicism. They were not prepared to give full-hearted support to a man they have spent months lampooning.
They questioned his motives; they pointed to his apparent lack of a strategy; they expressed fears about the aftermath. The British editors were not alone. In Trump’s backyard, the New York Times and the Washington Post aired similar doubts.
There was an identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary: “Well done Donald, but … ” The “buts” amounted to eloquent judgments on the president’s character, conveying explicit messages of disquiet and distrust.
“A principled stand but fraught with danger,” said the Daily Mail. It argued that Trump’s missile attack “sends a potent signal that the civilised world will not tolerate the obscenity of chemical warfare”, but called Trump “an untested novice, whose judgment remains deeply questionable”.
Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, contended that Trump “made the right call on Assad, but it would be madness to trust him”, adding: “Sometimes the right thing can be done by the wrong person.”
“For once, Trump did the right thing,” said the Daily Mirror, but “possibly for the wrong reason”.
Britain’s former US ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, wrote in the Mail on Sunday that Trump’s strike against Assad was “the right thing to do … But did Trump do the right thing for the wrong reasons?”
Trump “suddenly looks decisive and tough,” said the Sunday Telegraph. “But once he chose to get involved in Syria, he committed himself to forming a coherent policy towards Assad – and that is a serious, risky challenge.”
It was short-term newspaper praise mitigated by deeper long-term concerns. Here’s another in the New York Times: “It was hard not to feel some sense of emotional satisfaction, and justice done … But it is also hard not to feel unsettled by the many questions raised by President Trump’s decision.”
Was it, asked the paper, legal? “Was it an impetuous, isolated response unrelated to a larger strategy?” It answered that by saying: “There is no evidence that Mr Trump has thought through the implications of using military force or figured out what to do next.”
Trump, who is not noted for subtlety and a grasp of nuance, may not have picked up on the import of such reservations. Then again, despite much of the press praise being cushioned by caution, there was a measure of unconditional support.
There were no buts in the Sun, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph. All regarded Trump’s missile strike as proportionate, with the latter seeing it as a “defence of humanitarian principle”.
All took the opportunity to bury their editorial knives into Trump’s predecessor. Barack Obama “famously set red lines in Syria only to run away when they were crossed” (Telegraph); Obama had “shamefully looked the other way” (Sun); Obama’s “soaring rhetoric was rarely matched by decisive action” (Mail).
Australia’s leading papers, echoing their government’s support for the missile strike, saw it in similar terms. “Fortunately”, said the Australian, Trump “is not as feeble as Barack Obama”, while the Age in Melbourne argued that the attack was a justified, proportionate and carefully targeted response to Assad’s “series of crimes against humanity”.
Back in the UK, the Times thought Trump had done more than give Assad a bloody nose. It had also taught Russia, China and North Korea a lesson: “The Obama era is well and truly over.”
Its stablemate, the Sunday Times, had the same thought and used virtually the same phrase: “Russia will get the message that the Obama era of new world disorder is over.” And it finished it off with a good quip: “In his first real crisis the American president has acted presidentially enough. So far Mr Trump’s actions speak louder than his tweets.”
The Financial Times, while contending that Trump had delivered a strong message not only to Syria’s dictator but also to the wider world, added a note of caution: “The question now is whether Washington can translate this show of resolve into something resembling a policy.”
The Washington Post was altogether more positive. Trump’s action had been “right as a matter of morality” and “could also yield a host of practical benefits”. Assad would be deterred from using again deadly chemicals on civilians while Russia and Iran might reconsider their support for “the blood-drenched Damascus dictator”.
The Post even suggested that Trump “could fill the leadership vacuum, in the Middle East and beyond, left by President Barack Obama’s decision not to enforce his own red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons.”
But, and this time it is my but, there were some principled voices against the attack, two of which were published in the Daily Mail. Peter Oborne refused to share “the exultation in Whitehall”over an act of “revenge”. No one knows the truth about the chemical attack, he wrote, so Theresa May’s “only responsible course of action should have been to wait until Britain’s intelligence services could gather the evidence and ascertain the truth.”
And John R Bradley viewed the missile attack as “a grotesquely manipulated media spectacle, a clownish political stunt planned and shamelessly pulled off by Trump to boost his popularity at home”.
Moreover, “by launching a $5bn firework show”, the president “ensures that he will no longer be dogged by accusations that he is a puppet of Russian president Vladimir Putin”.
That also struck Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph, another of the “but” brigade: “Trump has made a morally and tactically unimpeachable move,” she wrote. “But that does not eliminate the obvious questions … why did his stance on Syria turn 180 degrees from the one he consistently held and repeatedly stated (from 2012 until last week)?”
One of the distinctive features of the UK newspaper reaction was the way in which papers of the left and right adopted a similar stance. In hoping that the “justified” US strike would “act as a spur to the international community” the Independent was as hawkish as the Sun and Express.
Indeed, the Mail was more critical: “This paper cannot help feeling distinctly queasy about the president’s decision to toss another burning match into the tinderbox of the Middle East.”
It was silent, however, on the statement issued by Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in which he opposed the missile attack on the grounds that it risks escalating the war in Syria.
He was against “unilateral military action without legal authorisation” and called for the reconvening of the Geneva peace talks with “unrelenting international pressure for a negotiated settlement”.
This earned Corbyn rebuffs from both the Sun (which crassly claimed he was seeking “to stand in league with the despots of Syria and Russia”) and the Mirror, which called his response “wishful thinking”.
The Labour-supporting Mirror said: “Diplomacy and peace negotiations remain the best route to ending this terrible civil war. But sometimes a military response is justified.”
And the Telegraph was scathing about Corbyn, saying his statement was “the predictable lament of someone who prefers it when the west sits on its hands.”
But I must finish with a “but”. Newspapers may feel good about the attack on Assad but, in the long-term, isn’t Corbyn more likely to be right?