President Donald Trump’s decision to order a Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Assad regime’s latest war crime was more than an act of deterrence—it was the death of the president’s “America First” foreign policy doctrine.
The world looks a lot more glaring and overwhelming when you sit in the Oval Office than when you’re traveling across America, giving speeches on the campaign trial, and auditioning for the job. Trump is learning, most recently in North Korea, that keeping the US out of foreign wars, refocusing America’s attention on the home front, and letting other nations sort out their own problems is simply unsustainable in today’s interconnected world; the America Firster now realizes that global norms will only be enforced if the US is willing to enforce them.
If you’ve been reading the commentary or watching cable TV over the past several days, this is the theme you likely hear over and over again. “Trump’s decision to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in response to Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack against civilians won support from some people he had routinely disparaged,” the Washington Post reports. “Acting on Instinct, Trump Upends His Own Foreign Policy,” blares a New York Times headline. In Politico, Shane Goldmacher writes that “Donald Trump wanted to be the trade president, the jobs president, the ‘America First’ president. Now, less than three months into the White House, he is a president wading into a civil war in Syria….”
The America First platform that Trump ran on during his campaign, a message that proved to be very appealing to working and middle class Americans who look back at the last sixteen years of foreign policy and see nothing but death, destruction, trillions of dollars in waste, and low strategic returns, is as dead as disco.
Except that it isn’t.
National security hawks in the senate like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Tom Cotton, and their liberal internationalists colleagues in the mold of Ben Cardin, Tim Kaine, and Dick Durban, see the Syria strikes last week as a step in the right direction—the beginnings of a new era in which Trump moves away from a neo-isolationist-lite doctrine to a more establishment traditionalist. All of this hope, however, is based more on what they would like to see in Trump and less on the facts as they present themselves.
Trump’s missile attack on an Assad regime airbase is indeed a change from his past rhetoric. During the campaign, he consistently sounded the theme of America steering clear from any intervention or military adventurism that rings of regime change or a humanitarianism. A week prior, many of us wouldn’t have believed that Trump, the steely tough guy who has very little sympathy for Syrian refugees, would be moved by images of dying Syrian children grasping for breath after a sarin gas attack.
But the emotional decision to respond was a highly limited one, with specific objectives and specific targets in mind. Unlike an Obama administration plan in 2013 that would have been a multi-day campaign operating on a bigger target set and involving missile strikes on airfields, conventional units, and command-and-control sites, Trump’s “go” order was minuscule in the realm of military operations. This shouldn’t be overlooked as insignificant, for it tells is that while Trump had an emotional inclination to respond militarily in some way, he chose to do the bare minimum—knowing that anything greater could result in Russian military casualties and a stepping stone to greater US military involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The operation, in other words, was large enough to be seen as “doing something” but small enough to avoid a major military controversy with a nuclear armed nation whose pilots sleep on the very same bases that Assad’s troops use to drop barrel bombs on civilians. If Trump was suddenly transforming into some version of John McCain or Dick Cheney, concerns about wading down the slippery slope of a quagmire presumably wouldn’t have as much impact during administration deliberations.
One can certainly understand why interventionists are excited. Just last month, very few would have believed that Trump would unleash several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles from two Navy destroyers stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to punish the Syrian government—on humanitarian grounds no less. But after the hype and euphoria lifts, it’s quite clear that the Trump administration as a whole remains incredibly nervous about pursuing a policy of regime change at the point of gun. Defense officials have told lawmakers that last week’s missile barrage was a one-time event, a proportional response to dissuade Assad from using sarin gas on the battlefield and nothing more. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson confirmed this on CBS on Sunday, saying that the administration’s priority in Syria “really hasn’t changed.” These aren’t exactly the comments one would expect from an America Firster suddenly evolving into a muscular unilateralist going on a crusade to make the world a more happy place.
For better or worse, president Trump is still a commander-in-chief who wants European nations to start taking their defense spending seriously. He would still like to explore whether relations with Russia can improve (although that goal has been complicated by last week’s strike). And he’s still a man who has three decades of history believing that the American people have gotten ripped off—and continue to be shortchanged—by so many countries that it’s a wonder how America’s is still a superpower.
If neoconservatives and liberal internationalists are hoping for another military campaign the size of Libya circa 2011, they will be sadly disappointed.