Ironically, President Donald Trump’s decision to fire Tomahawk missiles into Syria is the most reassuring action he’s taken since he was sworn into office nearly three months ago — ironic because even some Trump voters were worried that he didn’t have he right temperament to use America’s arsenal judiciously.
Despite the absence of nuance in his rhetoric, Trump showed that he is capable of deploying force in limited fashion. More important, he displayed a capacity to listen and learn from experts at the Pentagon and in the foreign policy intelligentsia.
Trump’s initial reaction to the gassing of Syrians was essentially “So what?” It was a cruel reminder of his basic lack of empathy and perfectly in line with campaign promises to mind America’s business first.
And then within a couple of days, Trump asked the Pentagon for plans to launch a retaliatory strike, developed compassion for the victims of the chemical weapons attack and let missiles fly in the name of God.
This has upset some of his nationalist supporters, but it is a reason for the rest of us to rejoice.
Example of leadership?
His aides told reporters on background that Trump saw a military response as a means to prove to the world that he has the mettle to lead. It was a decision supported by mainstream national security experts in both parties. In fact, in addition to the bomb-everything wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment, some Democrats want to see him expand the assault on Assad.
Parts of Trump’s statement after the strikes were launched sounded similar to then-Secretary of State John Kerry’s case for military action against Assad in 2013.
“It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Kerry said. “There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.”
Trump also alluded to the moral case for the strikes, invoking God repeatedly. A cynic might say he bent to pressure from two pillars of the Republican Party: foreign policy hawks and religious humanitarians.
And that’s precisely why this act was so reassuring. Trump is more than given to following the passions and advice of whoever likes him. During the campaign, that was the bigoted, know-nothing element in the Republican Party. In the opening weeks of his presidency, he danced with the folks who brought him to the Oval Office.
The ringleader of that set, Steve Bannon, who reportedly slings the word “globalist” at prominent Jewish people, didn’t serve Trump well. As chief White House strategist, he has proved himself worse than incompetent. His fingerprints were all over the unconstitutional Trump travel ban, and his efforts to help Trump pass a health care bill by bullying members of Congress were counterproductive.
Beyond that, it doesn’t take a forensic effort to see how much discord he has sown within the White House and the Republican Party from the West Wing. The demotion of Bannon from the National Security Council’s principals committee last week—it’s a marvel that someone so unqualified was ever put in that position in the first place—was an early sign that Trump was starting to pay attention to the national security professionals in his midst. The tailored strike against Syria provided further evidence of a serious and laudatory change in direction.
Assad’s chemical weapons attack, carried out after he had supposedly turned over all of his stock, would have been met by a similar response from any president. So, it’s hardly time to give Trump a medal. We don’t yet know how his policy will evolve in Syria or if he will execute another 180-degree turn if he decides that a more establishment-oriented tack isn’t making him popular.
Acting presidential for a day or two hardly makes him the president he thinks he is. After all, he said the other day that he’d had one of the most successful 13 days in any presidency (Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare, the Voting Rights Act and the Housing and Urban Development Act into law in a span of fewer than 13 days). And he should be very, very wary of any more permanent engagement in the Syrian catastrophe.
But this has been a positive turn for Trump, and he should be applauded when he does the right thing. So, good on you, Mr. President.