The recent missile strike authorized by U.S. President Donald Trump in Syria after an apparent chemical weapons attack by the regime Bashar al-Assad represents a possible turning point in for new American Administration. It is also a turning point in a direction that is unlikely to benefit President Trump and U.S. national interests in the long-run.
President Donald Trump campaigned throughout both the Republican Party primaries and the General Election as a leader than would not simply embrace the Washington D.C. consensus where most every wrong in the world requires the white knight of the U.S. military to ride in and save the day. In fact, during the campaign, he practically brought a sledgehammer to the party while brutally and successfully assaulting the D.C. foreign policy elite. Ultimately, he was rewarded for this when he was crowned his party’s nominee and then upset Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. While much of what drew voters to him revolved around domestic policy and trade, it was clear a significant chunk of the American electorate was fed up with foreign adventures and interventionism. They wanted a President to focus on their needs, to defend them, and only focus on core national interests.
However, since a turbulent first couple of months in office, President Trump has now effectively surrounded himself with a cabinet full of very traditional D.C. insiders and thinkers. Their influence on the President appears to be large and gaining further ground while some of the President’s more unique advisors have been forced from service, such as his first National Security Advisor- Michael Flynn, or seemingly downgraded in importance, like campaign architect and firebrand Stephen Bannon.
This is the background to President Trump’s abrupt change in Syria policy.
Only a few days before the shocking chemical attack on Syrian citizens, it appeared that the Trump Administration was on its way to embracing a realpolitik view of the Syrian civil war and its resulting carnage. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that the Administration had no plans to push for Assad’s ouster. Yet, as soon as the disturbing images from the attack were beamed around the world, President Trump immediately stated that Assad crossed “many lines” and that his views on Assad had changed. The tone was focused and bellicose and made clear to most observers that President Trump would use force on the Syrian government. Then came the Tomahawk missile barrage of the air base from which it is asserted that the Assad regime launched its attack.
Now, the language in Washington and on the pages of most major national newspapers is practically seething and demanding the removal of Assad from power. Though President Trump has yet to personally outline what future measures he is going to take, a familiar pattern is emerging.
This pattern was visible in the run-up to President Bill Clinton’s 1999 Kosovo intervention, George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq invasion, and Barack Obama’s 2011 Libya intervention as well. A steady drumbeat against the various regimes preceded further military efforts that eventually led to events that would topple each leader. Of course, with the partial exception of Kosovo, the long-term result of these interventions has been greater, not less chaos in those countries.
It is now increasingly likely that President Trump may find himself struggling not to drown in the sands of Mesopotamia as much as his predecessors. With most of his new advisors representing at least some level of pro-interventionism, it would take a very willful President who understands deeply what they want to do with policy to not be swept up in the war fever. For President Trump, a leader with no real foreign policy experience and who is looking to boost sagging poll numbers, it could be even easier for him to move in this direction.
Tragically, this would be a serious mistake.
Candidate Donald Trump was correct that it is the role of the U.S. President to look after U.S. national interests and not spend precious resources abroad in a scattershot, knee-jerk fashion. Candidate Trump appeared to intuitively grasp that the greatest challenge for the U.S., in the long run, was the rise of China in East Asia and that it would only be through kick-starting the U.S. economy and rebuilding the U.S. military could this challenge be adequately dealt with. European and Middle Easter conflicts had, for decades, distracted the U.S. from being able to focus laser-like on this bigger challenge.
Unfortunately, a deeper engagement in Syria will inevitably put all of that on the back burner. Worse, it risks an even greater rupture with Russia given Russia’s own Syrian intervention designed to prop up the Assad regime. This, in turn, will keep the percolating neo-Cold War between the U.S. and Russia in a deep freeze despite President Trump’s initially, and correctly, expressed a desire for better relations with Moscow.
President Trump had, and retains, the ability to recast U.S. foreign policy and shift away from the kind of reckless, non-strategic interventionism that has become the calling card of U.S. foreign policy ever since it lost it’s Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union. But this will require President Trump to do as he did during his improbable campaign and dispense with status quo thinking. If he does, he can recapture the initiative and do what American presidents should always do- defend core national interests.
President Trump should not succumb to the siren song of some vague and amorphous “international consensus” that is favored by the very cosmopolitan elites that disdain him and still can’t quite believe he occupies the White House.