What we are seeing right now, in the wake of Donald Trump launching retaliatory airstrikes against Syria, is a rally-round-the-president effect.
As the media shift to war footing, the tone of the coverage has dramatically changed, from whether Trump is a bumbling leader to how decisive he was in responding to Bashir al-Assad’s horrifying chemical attack.
And the natural instinct to support the commander-in-chief when he orders military action is a good thing—as long as it doesn’t go too far.
Trump is benefiting from two factors. One is the stark contrast with Barack Obama, who declared a red line against Syria and failed to enforce it in 2013, settling instead for a deal on chemical weapons that obviously didn’t remove all of them from the country.
The other is Hillary Clinton, earlier in the day, saying that the U.S. should bomb Syrian airfields—thus making it harder to argue that no cruise missiles would have been launched if the election had gone the other way.
Naturally, some journalists are asking about Trump changing his position on intervening in the Middle East, something he argued against during an America First campaign in which he stressed his opposition to the Iraq war. In fact, he opposed military action against Syria when Obama was considering it four years ago. “TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA - IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!” Trump tweeted then.
These are fair questions, along with Trump’s approach of seeking to temporarily bar, and then severely limit, refugees fleeing Assad’s brutal regime. But the press is not using these questions as a club to pound the president, as on so many other issues.
Trump now says Assad’s fatal gassing of innocent men, women and children had a profound impact on him, and told the country it is in America’s interest to stop the spread of chemical weapons.
The bottom line is that these questions look very different when you are president than when you are a candidate or reality show star.
But it’s imperative that the media ask the larger questions: What is Trump’s larger strategy? What is he willing to commit in terms of military resources? What risks is he prepared to take? What if Americans are captured in this effort? Can the United States really affect the Syrian civil war without boots on the ground, and without a confrontation with the Russians, who are on the ground?
Conversely, if the missile strike was more about sending a powerful signal, was it ultimately symbolic?
As retired generals flood the airwaves to praise the airstrikes, the media must avoid getting swept away as they were in 2003, when most news organizations covered the runup to the Iraq war with minimal skepticism.
The media consensus of the moment is that President Trump took bold and necessary military action. But it doesn’t get any easier from here.