Early last Friday, 59 cruise missiles were launched by the Trump administration in response to a chemical attack which killed 86 people in Syria. Before the dust had even settled, the media had determined the legitimacy of this presidency by virtue of its military injunction. It is a familiar story which plagues almost every country’s history when such action placates the concerns of before and replaces them with either a patriotic zeal of some level or at the very least, an admission of authority.
A few commentators like the Washington Post’s Derek Hawkins went so far as to describe the images of impending missile destruction as ‘beautiful’ whilst others, such as Fareed Zakaria on CNN, made more restrained, though nonetheless telling observations; ‘I think Donald Trump became president of the US last night.’ The questions of morality and legality in these assaults will undoubtedly provoke widespread debate but our interest for now lies in the area of the President’s perceived image. For just as these strikes have given the Trump the pedestal of ‘Commander-in-Chief’, so too have past events helped to cement previous leaders’ standing.
Abraham Lincoln and FDR, for example, whilst exceptional in many degrees, were able to ascend to the highest level of presidential grandeur because their legacies were so fundamentally interwoven with the great conflicts of their time. In less obvious circumstances however, such as Bill Clinton’s handling of Bosnia, we have also seen the ascension of rodents from the sewers to the street (not that Bill Clinton is a rat). Praise is not an essential factor in identifying the confluence of this change but inaction or weak, diplomatic-heavy procedures do little to reassure the public’s confidence in their leader. Our old favorite, Jimmy Carter, springs to mind at this point. Had he launched even a single missile during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, he would likely have garnered a tighter circle of supporters. He chose every other option first however and for that, he suffered the image of a weak, submissive Commander-in-Chief.
Military action may be the quickest way of mobilising public support; it does not create the strongest footing however. George W. Bush, after the attacks of 9/11, peaked at a 90% approval rating and garnered the support he needed for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. We know how the rest goes but even to this day, loved or hated, he is acknowledged as a strong leader. So whilst the likes of W. Post’s Margaret Sullivan has duly noted that ‘praise flowed like wedding champagne’ in the wake of the strikes, we must take such observations with a grain of salt. Trump’s popularity has not been assured in this instance. Questions over his legitimacy, however, are finally fading. A hundred days have almost passed and the media have now come to accept him as their president.
And in this unholy shitstorm, the vacuum of the media’s irresponsibility has once again magnified. We will leave this with a passage from what renowned Dan Rather had to say however because he puts it best:
The number of members of the press who have lauded the actions last night as “presidential” is concerning. War must never be considered a public relations operation. It is not a way for an Administration to gain a narrative. It is a step into a dangerous unknown and its full impact is impossible to predict, especially in the immediate wake of the first strike.