Punditry On Syrian Airstrikes Is Encouraging Trump To Escalate Tensions With North Korea

Similar Media Support Helped Enable Iraq War

After President Donald Trump launched airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in that country, media figures from across the political spectrum praised his “beautiful” attack, with many also linking the action to the growing threat that another country -- North Korea -- poses to the United States. Effusive media support of military conflict was a key precursor to the Iraq War; the danger of such uncritically hawkish commentary has multiplied under Trump, who sources policy ideas -- and defenses for his conduct -- directly from media.

US-North Korea Tensions Are On The Rise As Trump Commits Military Force In Syria

“Regional Tensions Spike” In Korean Peninsula As The North Tests More Missiles. Deutsche Welle (DW), a public international broadcaster funded by the German government, reported on April 5 that “repeated warnings” against North Korean missile tests “have so far failed to veer Pyongyang” off course, making “regional tensions spike.” DW also reported that a “sense of resignation over the question of North Korea … appears to be gaining traction in Washington,” further contributing to concerns of war. [Deutsche Welle, 4/5/17]

Trump Launched 59 Cruise Missiles At A Syrian Air Base. On April 7, CNN reported, “On President Donald Trump's orders, U.S. warships launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles” at an air base in Syria believed to have been the location from which the Syrian government attacked civilians with sarin gas earlier that week. [CNN.com, 4/7/17]

News Outlets Declare That Trump “Became President Of The United States” When He Bombed Syria

Media Lauded Trump’s “Beautiful” Airstrikes In Syria. After Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base, the president received near-universal praise for the attack. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria declared that “Donald Trump became President of the United States” when he ordered the airstrikes. Fox News’ Carl Higbie, best known for floating the idea of internment camps for Muslims, said the Syrian attack “was Donald Trump's first test and he absolutely nailed it.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams, upon seeing “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments” provided by the Pentagon, felt compelled to “quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’” The media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) also found that out of 47 major newspapers’ editorials about the Syrian airstrikes, only one opposed the attack. [Media Matters, 4/7/17; The Washington Post, 4/7/17; Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 4/11/17]

Recent Events Have Escalated Tensions Between The US And North Korea

In February, North Korea Tested A New Ballistic Missile And Assassinated A Regime Enemy; Trump Called Pyongyang’s Nuclear Weapons Our “Greatest Immediate Threat.” On February 13, North Korea allegedly assassinated Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s defector brother, with VX nerve agent at a Malaysian airport. North Korea also conducted a test of its newest ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2. On February 28, CNN reported that Trump considers the North Korean nuclear weapons program the “greatest immediate threat” to the United States. [The New York Times, 2/24/17, 2/13/17; CNN, 2/28/17]

In March, Secretary Of State Tillerson Said The U.S. Would Consider Pre-Emptive Strikes Against North Korea, After It Made “Meaningful Progress” In Improving Missile Design. On March 14, The Guardian reported that the United States would deploy “Grey Eagle drones, designed to carry Hellfire missiles” along the South Korean border for the first time. Three days later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the U.S. was considering, among other options, a pre-emptive strike against North Korean nuclear facilities. The same day Trump tweeted that “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years.”

On March 19, two days after Tillerson’s announcement and Trump’s threat, North Korea tested a new engine design for its ballistic missiles. According to The New York Times, South Korean experts conceded that the North showed “meaningful progress” in advancing its offensive strike capabilities. [The Guardian, 3/14/17; Business Insider, 3/17/17; Twitter, 3/17/17; The New York Times, 3/20/17]

In April, Trump Considered The Re-Nuclearization Of South Korea While China Threatened A First Strike And North Korea Cited The Syrian Attack As Justification For Its Weapons Program. On April 7, one day after Trump attacked a Syrian air base, The Hill reported that Trump was considering stationing nuclear weapons in South Korea for the first time in 25 years. The Chinese government-owned Global Times proclaimed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would unilaterally attack North Korean nuclear facilities if North Korean conduct affected its “bottom line” of maintaining the stability of northeastern China. The following day, North Korea released a statement alleging that American “aggression” in Syria justified the “self defense” of its nuclear weapons program. [The Hill, 4/7/17; Global Times, 4/7/17; New York Daily News, 4/8/17]

On April 9, Tillerson Announced That “Action Has To Be Taken” Against North Korea, Just Before A Carrier Strike Group Approached The Korean Peninsula. On the April 9 edition of CBS’ Face the Nation, Tillerson told host John Dickerson that the United States and China had agreed that “the situation [in North Korea] has intensified and has reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken.” It was later reported that the U.S. discussed pre-emptive strike scenarios with multiple Asian allies. The U.S. Navy also announced that a carrier strike group (CSG) composed of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and several destroyers had canceled a planned port tour of Australia to instead “operate in the Western Pacific” near the Korean peninsula. [CBS, Face the Nation, 4/9/17; Bloomberg, 4/12/17; U.S. Navy, 4/9/17]

On April 11, Trump Tweeted That “North Korea Is Looking For Trouble … We Will Solve The Problem … !”

[Twitter, 4/11/17]

On April 12, Trump Bragged To Fox Business About The Vinson “Armada” As North Korea Threatened Nuclear Retaliation And The U.S. Discussed Pre-Emptive Strikes With Asian Countries. During an April 12 interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo, Trump described the Vinson CSG en route to North Korea as an “armada,” bragging that it was “very powerful”; North Korea responded by threatening nuclear attack if it was “provoked.” UPI also reported that the Chinese military was on “alert” due to heightened nuclear tensions in North Korea; this report came after Beijing denied previous reports of “150,000” Chinese troops at the border. [Fox Business, 4/12/17; Reuters, 4/12/17, 4/12/17; UPI, 4/12/17]

Pundits Frequently Link North Korean Tensions To Syrian Airstrikes

Rush Limbaugh: “Keep Aiming, Little Kim. … If You Get Close Enough, You’re Gonna Pay The Price.” While discussing questions about whether Russian forces in Syria knew about the chemical weapons attack attributed to the Syrian government, Rush Limbaugh pivoted to North Korea and nuclear weapons and asked, “What’s everyone worried about?” Rush downplayed the North Korean threat by saying its missiles “keep plunking in the ocean,” and reassured listeners that “if you get close enough, you’re gonna pay the price.” From the April 11 edition of Premiere Radio Networks’ The Rush Limbaugh Show

RUSH LIMBAUGH (HOST): There's conflicting news about whether the Russians knew of the Syrian chemical attack before it happened. And the reason for this is that there was a drone flying around the hospital where the victims of the attack were taken for treatment, and the drone was supposedly a Russian drone being operated by Russian drone operators. That hospital was bombed, the hospital where victims of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s chemical weapons attack, was bombed. The reason it was bombed was to get rid of the victims and any evidence that gas, sarin, so forth had been used. Now Pentagon people say, “Russia didn’t know, they didn’t” -- it’s a really big conflict here, it’s --we’re still not sure; the AP claiming that we did know, we think the Russians did know before the attack and therefore didn’t do anything to stop it. And others -- “No, no, no, no, we didn’t know.” So we have to sift through that.

I've had three people today, three people -- one of whom was the official program observer, the other two via text message. One of them is, “I hope Trump counts to a thousand before he launches on North Korea.” Another text message says, “Oh my God, Rush, could this really happen? Could they really? Could we really be preparing to launch on North Korea?” And Mr. [Bo] Snerdley came and said, “I’m really worried about this North Korea thing,” and I looked at him and I said, “What’s everybody so concerned about here?”

This little Kim guy’s been launching his putrid little missiles trying to hit us for how many years now, and then his father prior to that. And they keep plunking in the Pacific Ocean someplace. Look, keep aiming, little Kim. I think our message -- keep aiming, Little Kim, and if you get close to us, you’re going to pay the price for it. The North Koreans should have been taken out years ago. [Premiere Radio Networks, The Rush Limbaugh Show, 4/11/17]

George W. Bush’s UN Ambassador John Bolton: “End North Korea.” On April 11, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the UN for the George W. Bush administration, told Fox News’ Shannon Bream on America’s Newsroom that “the risks involved [in North Korea], given what we've just seen in Syria, are now a little bit clearer to the Chinese” and that “the way to end the North Korean nuclear weapons program is to end North Korea” and “have the regime collapse.” From the April 11 edition of Fox News' America’s Newsroom:

SHANNON BREAM (CO-HOST): You have been dealing with and aware of this threat from North Korea for a very long time. How is this different? 

JOHN BOLTON: Well I think it's different in part because after eight years of watching North Korea continue to develop its nuclear and its ballistic missile capabilities, we're very close to the point where they will be able to deliver one of those nuclear warheads to the United States. So I think the time pressure here has accelerated. And I think the risks involved, given what we've just seen in Syria, are now a little bit clearer to the Chinese than they were before. Now we've got the North threatening all kinds of dire consequences because of the U.S. decision to turn a carrier strike group around, send it back close to South Korea. Fairly typical for North Korea. They have got a whole lexicon of threatening phrases they roll out from time to time. But honestly, just given the capabilities which our commander in South Korea has assessed, the South Koreans as well, we're very close to the point where some very hard decisions have to be made. 


BOLTON: In the mainstream media there have been articles recently explaining that Kim Jong Un really is fully rational, and in some bizarre sense maybe he is, but not in American terms. An American politician would not kill his half-brother with VX nerve agent in a public airport, just for starters, as Kim Jong Un recently did. I don’t think there is any point in negotiating with the North Koreans. On at least four occasions in the past 25 years, they have committed publicly to give up their nuclear weapons program in exchange for benefits that were promised to them. And in every case they have violated their commitment, typically before the ink was dry on it. They are not going to voluntarily give up their nuclear weapons program. They are not going to voluntarily give up their ballistic missile program. I think there is only one alternative here and that's to put enough pressure on them to have the regime collapse. The way to end the North Korean nuclear weapons program is to end North Korea, I think through reunification of the peninsula. That's something we should be talking to the Chinese about. [Fox News, America’s Newsroom, 4/11/17]

Trump’s Friend And Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich: “The Best Result In Both North Korea And Syria” Is To “Get The Military To Replace The Dictator.” On April 10, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who enjoys a friendship with Trump, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, also a friend of Trump’s, that “the best result in both North Korea and in Syria is somehow get the military to replace the dictator.” From the April 10 edition of Fox News’ Hannity:

NEWT GINGRICH: So the capacity to eliminate North Korea is pretty real. That would be horrible, and it’s certainly not something we want to do or are going to do, but in terms of a real deterrent, that submarine is a much bigger deterrent than the aircraft carrier. What the aircraft carrier does is it signals visibly to all of our allies in the region who see it on TV, and it says, hey, the United States is here. We’re not backing down. We’re not going to desert you. But if you look at Seoul -- 25 million people, all of them living within range of North Korean artillery. You really don't want to end up in a situation where Kim Jong Un goes crazy. I think the Chinese are going to apply pressure to him. We are going to apply pressure to him. I think frankly the best result in both North Korea and in Syria is to somehow get the military to replace the dictator. In both cases, you would have a more stable and a more rational government. But this is very, very risky stuff, because the world really is risky. [Fox News, Hannity, 4/10/17]

Brookings Institute Fellow In National Enquirer: The Syrian Attack “Actually Raises The Importance” Of The North Korean Issue Because “Remember Kim Jong Un Recently Used A Nerve Agent.” David Dollar, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, was quoted in the National Enquirer -- a paper Trump reads and that is run by his friend -- as claiming Trump’s attack on Syria “raises the importance” of the North Korean issue because “Kim Jong-un recently used a nerve agent to assassinate his half-brother, allegedly, in Malaysia.” [National Enquirer, 4/7/17]

NY Times’ Tom Friedman: “The Message” Of Syrian Attack Was “You Can’t Again Use This Weapon Of Mass Destruction Whether You’re … The Syrian Government [Or] Even North Korea.” On April 7, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman told Joe Scarborough on MSNBC’s Morning Joe if Trump had not responded to the chemical weapons attack, it would have sent “the message” that “you can again use this weapon of mass destruction … whether you’re ISIS ... the Syrian government ... Shia militia ... or God knows even North Korea.” Friedman vaguely invoked “values” for which, he claimed, the U.S. is “the last bulwark of defense.” From the April 7 edition of MSNBC’s Morning Joe:

JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): What is the cost to the international order, if -- and let’s forget about [former President] Barack Obama, let’s just talk about this past week. What would be the cost to the international order, to international values and norms, if we had not responded [to the Syrian chemical weapons attack]? 

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: It would have been, I think, truly significant, Joe. The message is you can again use this weapon of mass destruction whether you’re -- by the way, ISIS, whether you’re the Syrian government, whether you’re Shia militia -- pro-Iranian Shia militia in Iran, or, God knows, even North Korea. So I think this sent multiple messages. Again, you don't want to exaggerate it. It's one event, one day. But, it's very important that the United States -- we are the last bulwark of defense for these values -- that we took this decision now and I thought it was very important. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 4/7/17]

Fox News And Wash. Post Hide Financial Conflicts Of Interest For Commentators Supporting Syrian Airstrikes. Media Matters reported on April 10 that Fox News’ Jack Keane, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who has repeatedly praised Trump’s attack on Syria, served on the board of directors for General Dynamics, a defense contractor that makes technology used in Tomahawk cruise missiles. On April 11, Media Matters uncovered that The Washington Post has routinely failed to disclose that PostPartisan contributor Ed Rogers, who praised Trump’s Syrian intervention, is a lobbyist for Raytheon, the defense contractor that makes Tomahawk cruise missiles. [Media Matters, 4/10/17, 4/11/17]

Trump Is Known To Take Cues From News Media

Trump Defends Himself By Citing Right-Wing Media Defenses. In a January 11 press conference Trump attacked CNN as “fake news” for reporting on allegations that his campaign may have cooperated with Russian cyberattacks. Trump’s weaponization of the term “fake news” came after right-wing media spent months delegitimizing the term by using it to attack legitimate news outlets. Right-wing media outlets reported that The New York Times wrote, then edited, a headline saying that Trump was “wiretapped” by Obama, proving the president’s baseless lie that Obama spied on him. Although the Times confirmed that neither the print nor the online headline was altered, Trump latched onto the misinformation to claim his false wiretap claim was proven “on the front page of The New York Times.” Right-wing media figures like Charles Krauthammer and Rush Limbaugh were among the first to take an unconfirmed claim that former National Security Advisor Susan Rice had committed a crime by requesting the “unmasking” of Trump associates caught in incidental surveillance of Russian officials; just a few days later Trump told The New York Times that “yes, I think” Rice committed a crime. [Media Matters, 2/8/17, 3/23/17, 4/5/17

Trump Appears To Derive Policy From Right-Wing Media. Several parts of Trump’s proposed immigration policies, such as a border wall and cracking down on sanctuary cities, had been peddled by right-wing media figures, primarily on Fox News, for years before Trump became president. CNN has also asked, “Is cable news shaping U.S. policy,” noting that shortly after “Bill O’Reilly did a story on Chicago, laying out the crime statistics, call[ing] for federal aid,” Trump tweeted that he “will send in the feds” to curb Chicago’s gun violence. Conspiracy theorist and 9/11 truther Alex Jones, who believes the Sandy Hook massacre was faked by Obama, claims that he has “talked to folks very close to the president” about U.S. foreign policy in Syria; Jones has also described the “surreal” feeling of “talk[ing] about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later.” [Media Matters, 8/30/16; CNN, CNN Newsroom, 1/27/17; Genesis Communications Networks, The Alex Jones Show, 4/12/17, 8/11/16]

Hawkish Punditry Can Have Dire Global Consequences

Media Provided A Rubber-Stamp Approval Of The Iraq War. During the run-up to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, media reports were enthusiastically supportive of claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and helped Al Qaeda carry out the 9/11 attacks, and they frequently urged more action. In 2002, the Times’ Friedman, who won a Pulitzer Prize that year “for his clarity of vision … in commenting on the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat,” said that invading Iraq was “worth doing” because the U.S. needed to tell the Middle East to “suck on this.” In February 2002, Sean Hannity, then a co-host of Fox’s Hannity & Colmes, said that “we’re going to find all of the weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. In April, he mocked critical claims that the war would become a “quagmire [because] we don’t have enough troops.” Joe Scarborough incredulously asked a congressman, “How could there be anyone left on the planet today that doesn’t believe that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction?” Later, as the invasion was underway, Scarborough declared that “in each and every case, [Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld] were exactly right” about Iraq. [Media Matters, 3/19/13; Pulitzer.org, 4/8/02]

Media’s Iraq War Boosters Were Rehabilitated As The War Became A Disaster. During the Obama administration, media frequently looked to Iraq War architects like former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to criticize Obama’s foreign policy. Wolfowitz, who was the very first administration official to talk publicly about deposing Hussein, argued on Meet the Press that the U.S. should attack Syria to stop the civil war. Conservative commentator Bill Kristol, who served on a “Committee for the Liberation of Iraq” and predicted the war would be over in two months, blamed Obama for violence in a country that he helped invade a decade earlier. Iraq War boosters rarely, if ever, faced consequences for their warmongering. Wolfowitz is an occasional political commentator, Kristol is still editor of The Weekly Standard, Friedman is still a New York Times columnist, Hannity remains on Fox News, where he now has his own prime-time show, and Scarborough was given a three-hour daily morning show with Mika Brzezinski. [Media Matters, 3/19/13; 6/15/14; The New York Times, 1/31/17]