On Syria, Which Version of Trump Will Win Out?

The America Firster who mocked international norms has abruptly reversed course.

The silhouette of President Donald Trump
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Thursday, Donald Trump, who as a presidential candidate mocked the “eggheads” who wouldn’t let him torture terrorists because it would violate international law, defended the post-World War I international norm against the deployment of chemical weapons in warfare. Trump, who as a presidential candidate excused an Iraqi dictator’s use of chemical weapons, called a Syrian dictator’s likely use of sarin nerve gas inexcusable. The man who once declared any enemy of terrorists his friend—be it Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin—was suddenly launching cruise missiles at an airfield hosting the forces of Assad and Putin, even if that complicated his fight against the Islamic State in Syria. The America Firster who condemned the stupidity of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East (some of which he had at one point supported) was now intervening in the Middle East. The president who banned Syrian refugees from America’s shores was condemning Assad for extinguishing “the lives of helpless men, women and children.”

That Trump’s first major military campaign has transpired in this way is utterly remarkable. His was not some massive, no-holds-barred operation in reaction to a terrorist attack. Instead, it was a limited intervention justified on moral and humanitarian grounds, against people Trump once considered allies, and in response to an indirect threat to the United States but a direct threat to the wider world.

Trump has been truer to campaign form in some of his less-visible military strikes. He authorized a risky counterterrorism raid in Yemen and has, without much fanfare, significantly escalated drone strikes against suspected terrorists there. In Yemen and Somalia, he has loosened rules for strikes against Islamist militants that were designed to prevent civilian casualties. He has pressed ahead with offensives against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But even here, Trump has not departed dramatically from the playbook of Barack Obama, whom Trump once branded the “founder of ISIS.” As The New York Times reported last month, “indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.” Obama bequeathed these wars to Trump.

Trump’s strikes against the Syrian military will have many consequences, but one of those consequences is the obliteration of the idea that the Trump administration has a single, unified foreign policy. The administration has multiple competing foreign policies, represented by nationalists like White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, internationalists like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster (who appear to have had Trump’s ear in the lead-up to the Syria strikes), and everyone in between, including the mercurial president himself.

At the moment (and I stress at the moment), on many issues, the internationalists appear to have the advantage. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy elaborates:

In the dystopian “Clash of Civilizations” scenario that Bannon and his supporters subscribe to, Syria represents an important staging ground in the U.S.-led crusade against radical Islam, and an example of what future U.S.-Russian cooperation could look like. But the photographs of children being asphyxiated by Assad’s chemical weapons appear to have given Trump pause about being associated with the Assad-Putin axis. …

The one puzzle—and potential hiccup—in all of this is Trump. From the get-go, there has been a glaring contradiction in his approach to the world. While his rhetoric has, at times, embraced nativism, isolationism, and protectionism, he is himself a consummate globalist. As a television celebrity and developer, his business is largely based on selling his name around the world and attracting foreign money, some of it of dubious origin, to his U.S. real-estate ventures.

The question has always been which Trump will win out: the nationalist rabble-rouser or the avatar of global capitalism? It is still too early to say for sure.

Cassidy wrote this shortly before Trump fired 59 Tomahawk missiles into another country. But it remains just as true in the attack’s aftermath.

After all, on the campaign trail, Trump seemed like a man obsessed with jihadist terrorism and contemptuous of international norms and humanitarian intervention. Was he, though? In an interview with Circa shortly before the election, Trump pledged to respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons, especially if they were deployed against American troops. “You have to hit them so hard and the people that did it,” Trump said. “Don’t forget they’re out there looking to do it again.” The comments received little attention at the time.