Almost exactly ten years before launching a Tomahawk missile strike against a Syrian air base, Donald J. Trump enjoyed a similar triumph in an internationally-televised, pay-per-view spectacle called the “Battle of the Billionaires.”
Staged as the culmination of a widely-hyped “feud” between Trump and World Wrestling Entertainment mogul Vince McMahon, the event featured Trump in a business suit tackling his rival on the ring apron—the referee having been rendered conveniently unconscious.
Trump pummeled his rival with some of the weakest fake punches in professional wrestling history. Smirking and swaggering, he then plunked McMahon in a chair in the center of the ring and shaved his head.
The video: simply has to be seen to be believed.
Now I don’t want to shock anybody, but professional wrestling feuds are purely scripted theatrical events. Let Wikipedia explain: “Feuds are often the result of the friction that is created between faces (the heroic figures) and heels (the malevolent, ‘evil’ participants). Common causes of feuds are a purported slight or insult, although they can be based on many other things, including conflicting moral codes or simple professional one-upmanship.
Which brings us back to Syria. Because if it would be irresponsible to call the events of last week as stage-managed as “WrestleMania 23,” it would also be naïve to ignore their theatrical aspects.
First, because neither the Assad nerve gas atrocity nor the US response had any real military purpose. The Syrian dictator and his Russian backers have been winning the civil war, bombing hospitals and slaughtering thousands of civilians without resorting to banned weapons. Assad’s only imaginable motive would have been to convince rebel factions of his absolute ruthlessness—something they already believe.
Supposedly, however, the Russians had persuaded Assad to surrender his biochemical arsenal back in 2013, after President Obama’s ill-considered “red line” blunder. How, then, with Russian soldiers all over the remote air strip where the gas attack was allegedly launched, could Vladimir Putin NOT have known what was going down?
And why would Assad have defied the Russians? Last week’s barbaric strike killed a reported 84 civilians in a rebel-held Syrian village. In contrast, the 2013 chemical assault that prompted Barack Obama’s anger took 1400 lives—an outrage that troubled Donald Trump hardly at all.
Reasoning that Bashar al-Assad’s enemies were Sunni extremists like ISIS, Trump sent out a series of Twitter messages urging Obama to lay off.
“AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER,” he wrote “DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA – IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”
Never mind that Obama ultimately agreed with Trump about the risks of involving the U.S. in yet another Middle Eastern war. “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin,” he tweeted in October 2012 “watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.”
A month later, Obama was re-elected easily.Meanwhile, “If he [Trump] can reverse himself on Syria,” writes former G.W. Bush speechwriter David Frum “he can reverse himself on anything.”
Apparently so. In 2013, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported Obama striking Syria; the same poll today shows 86 percent of Republicans back Trump’s actions. I’m sorry, but that is exactly a pro-wrestling audience.
Consider what has taken place. By playing the heel, Putin has allowed President Trump to enact the role of hero: launching an almost purely symbolic, militarily insignificant strike against Syria.
“When I take action,” George W. Bush famously said after 9/11, “I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”
And yes, Hillary Clinton was urging Trump on.
But that was then. This is now.
We’re also not supposed to notice that Vladimir Putin’s the one calling the shots.