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Trump’s short show of presidential leadership on Syria isn’t enough to sustain him

Ignore the vows and hair-pulling.

There will be no campaign to remove the killer Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who again has gassed his people, murdering some 85 in his most recent attack. The usual international coalition possesses no will. The facts on the ground don’t allow for easy extraction. A palatable quasi-democrat isn’t waiting to step in. And even if those conditions were met, Russian president Vladimir Putin would make the price too high. If Putin went along with Assad’s ouster, he would further expose to the world his own excesses of militarism and murder.

It was a good show that just two days after Assad’s sarin gas attack, US president Donald Trump responded with a strike of 59 missiles at Shayrat air base in Homs province. He allowed the world to vent horror and anger at Assad. But hours later Syrian jets were taking off from Shayrat: Trump had made an elegant announcement of moral purpose, and a stated new policy of defending innocent women and children. But the words were rendered empty and self-serving by the bombing’s light damage—the runways, the taxiways, the parking areas are intact. Assad can go on with his war.

What did Trump achieve? He has, for now, deflected attention from his long list of self-inflicted woes. On April 7, for the first time in weeks, not a word was heard about investigations of his campaign’s links to Russian hacking of last year’s presidential election; cable television forgot about the diet of lies Trump feeds to the nation, and his unsubstantiated allegations against perceived enemies. Talk of an unraveling of his young presidency tapered off.

Trump will ride his newfound bipartisan support for a time. But he will have to do more to keep it. For starters, he can find out what Putin knew about Assad’s sarin gas stockpile, and of the recent attack. He will have to find a way to defuse the tension with North Korea, which fired yet another ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on April 4. And he must stop making ad hominem, false attacks against his enemies. Trump, in short, will have to keep making a stab at statesmanship. One short show of presidential leadership will not be sufficient.

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