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100 Days in, Trump Has Already Learned the Seductions of Foreign War

Gene Healy

With his major initiatives stymied by Congress and the courts,
President Trump has begun griping about the media holding him to
“the ridiculous standard of the first 100
The good news for Trump is he can argue for an
extension: according to some of America’s preeminent
“thought leaders,” he wasn’t really
president until he hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles on April

“The Trump administration can truly be said to have
started only now,” exulted neoconservative foreign policy guru
Elliot Abrams the day after the airstrikes. “Donald Trump
became the president of the United States [last night],”
echoed CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. It was
“a big moment,” “a kind of education of Donald
Trump,” Zakaria gushed: Trump “realized [that]
presidents don’t need to go to a pesky Congress every time
they want military force.”

As a practical matter, Zakaria is right: perversely, it’s
in the use of military force—the area where presidents are
most dangerous—where they now have the freest hand. The
president can’t unilaterally pass a tax cut or a new
health-care plan, but say the word, and the missiles will fly. When
he’s showered in media accolades for doing so, it can make
the resort to force particularly seductive.

With tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, the Trump team has
signaled it may be ready to unleash another barrage, if it can just
get our errant “armada” into position.
Asked last Monday whether the president was “prepared to act
alone” against North Korea, White House press secretary Sean
Spicer replied they’d make sure Congress is
“notified,” but “I think he’s going to
utilize the powers under Article II of the Constitution.” Now
that’s presidential!

Our political culture has
degraded to the point where it encourages the worst presidential
temptations—and we’ve made waging war nearly as easy as
firing off a tweet.

War Abroad Distracts Americans from Home

Our Constitution’s framers had a far narrower view of the
president’s powers, and envisioned a broader role for that
“pesky Congress” in matters of war and peace. As James
Madison put it in 1793, “In no part of the
constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which
confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not
to the executive department”; were it otherwise, “the
trust and the temptation would be too great for any one

There’s a good deal of political-science evidence
suggesting that the “temptation” Madison warned about
is real. The “rally effect, “for “rally round the
flag,” describes the popularity boost presidents derive from
international conflict: “Scholars have repeatedly found
short-lived spikes in US presidential approval following US uses of military force.”

The “diversionary war” hypothesis—the
scholarly moniker for “Wag the Dog”—proposes that
beleaguered presidents may seek to distract the public by waging
war abroad. Here, the evidence is more mixed. But various studies have found that
presidents are more likely to use force during periods of economic stagnation, or high unemployment, and that “presidents
resort to the sword more quickly when their approval ratings decline.”

Some presidents may be particularly susceptible to temptation:
More conceptually simple
—particularly when high in distrust, a trait
linked to more hawkish policy inclinations—are significantly
more likely to engage in diversion.”

The Media Love War. Middle America, Not So

Whatever motivated Trump’s Syria strike, it seems to have
given his dismal approval ratings a nudge. Moreover, judging by the chorus of approval from American “opinion
leaders,” the president may have to rethink his view that the
press is the “enemy of the American people.” On Syria,
media elites proved themselves far more likely to “rally
round the flag” than will guys in trucker hats.

The “failing New York Times” greeted the
airstrikes with the headline “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came
He “did the right thing” was the
common refrain from former critics, like the Times’
Nicholas Kristof, the humanitarian hawk
Anne-Marie Slaughter, and neoconservative
#NeverTrump-er Bret Stephens.

It’s no surprise that, as a senior White House official
told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius,
“The decision to strike a Syrian air base was a confidence builder for an inexperienced and
sometimes fractious White House.” After all, “Trump
couldn’t be sure when he launched the attack that a Russian
wouldn’t be killed, or that some other freak mishap
wouldn’t arise.”

We managed to dodge the worst-case scenarios, but new dangers
lie ahead. As Madison warned: in war, “laurels are to be
gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The
strongest passions and most dangerous weaknesses of the human
breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honourable or venial love of
fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of

Two centuries later, our political culture has degraded to the
point where it encourages the worst presidential
temptations—and we’ve made waging war nearly as easy as
firing off a tweet. If, per Fareed Zakaria, we’re witnessing
the “education of Donald Trump,” what lessons is he
being taught?

Gene Healy is a
vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the
Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.”