When Being Trustworthy Matters

On Thursday night, President Donald Trump ordered a missile attack on an air base in Syria. The strike was in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use last week of sarin gas on civilians in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, an attack which killed nearly a hundred people, including children.

I hesitated to write about this, because I do not know what I would do in Trump’s position. The Syrian civil war is a horrific conflict, and an immensely complicated one. There seem to be only bad options for the United States. That was the case in 2011 when the war began, it was the case in 2013 when Assad first used chemical weapons on his own people, and it is the case now.

Also, I think it’s premature to judge the strike on its merits right now, because we do not know enough. We do not know whether the attack really limited Assad’s ability to wage war on civilians, and we do not know whether the strike was a one-off, or if it was the beginning of a longer campaign. Many have argued that using force was a bad decision, and others have argued that it isn’t enough.

These issues are important and worth debating. I would encourage people, though, not to look at this in a vacuum. Trump is still Trump. He has tried, and is presumably still trying, to bar Syrian refugees to come to the United States. He has shown contempt for the professionals in the military and intelligence by saying he knows more than generals, by refusing to take responsibility for the botched raid in Yemen, and for refusing daily briefings. He has time and again spoken about things of which he knows little, and he has consistently refused to bear the blame when things go wrong.

The strike may have been a good idea. We don’t know yet. But we do know what sort of man the person who authorized it is. He is not someone who has demonstrated an ability or a desire to think deeply about tough issues. He is not someone who has shown he can act responsibly when lives are at risk. He is not someone who seems especially attached to any theory of moral or ethical behavior. He is not someone who has shown he can take serious matters seriously.

We know what sort of man he is. For me, at least, he is not the sort of man I want leading a war or a military operation, because he lacks the moral seriousness required to do so. Bombing another country did not suddenly make Donald Trump “the president of the United States,” as Fareed Zakaria said on CNN in response to news of the attack. He’s been president, and he’s shown that one does not have to behave with decency or maturity or virtue to hold that office. One must do more, though, than win an election to earn my trust.

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