Trump’s moves allow him to draw a sharp line between himself and Obama, winning over many critics from the heart of the American foreign policy mainstream. The Senate’s two key Republican foreign policy voices, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, issued a statement in strong support of the strike, noting that Trump had marked a distinction from the Obama administration and begun establishing U.S. credibility. A leader of the conservative Never Trump movement, Bill Kristol, tweeted that he could support the action if not the man: “He’s the president, not merely ‘Trump.’”
Even the centrist and liberal wings of the blob turned out for Trump. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a blob leader if ever one existed, noted that acting where Obama didn’t gave Trump the chance to define himself as the “new sheriff.” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama official who has advocated intervention in Syria in the past, said bluntly: “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria.” Even Hillary Clinton was supportive of the action in remarks she made before the strike.
As a bonus, Trump managed to shed support from a particularly troublesome wing of his coalition: his ardent allies on the political fringe and the far right. Paul Watson of the xenophobic, conspiracy-mongering outlet InfoWars, declared himself “off the Trump train” and tweeted that he would turn his attentions to France’s Marine Le Pen. For her part, Le Pen seemed uncomfortable with the action, declaring her surprise and saying Trump should have waited for an international investigation. Another pro-Trump, pro-Putin ally, Nigel Farage, also seemed taken aback by the actions of his one-time champion, choosing like Le Pen to declare himself “surprised.” But this group carries little weight on foreign policy and can be won back with some care and a few dog-whistle tweets.
Of course, Trump benefited from the groundwork laid by his predecessor. The plan Obama considered for striking Syria was significantly more comprehensive, in part because Syria still maintained the bulk of its chemical weapons stockpiles then. At the time Obama was considering action, Martin Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote that stand-off strikes would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions.” The plan Trump approved looked very different from what Dempsey described, according to a former Obama official: many missiles hitting one largely symbolic target, rather than an effort to hit many targets. Trump didn’t need to achieve the same military effect. He could instead simply do what Tomahawk missiles do best: send a political message.
The ability to send a message with a much smaller mission also enabled Trump to minimize the main risk of attacking Syria—collateral damage to Russian forces operating in the country. Russia has fumed in response, to be sure, but it certainly did not activate its air defenses in Syria. A Kremlin statement implied that the chemical attack itself was a ruse effected by the United States to justify interventionism. “The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons,” it said, while the government cut off existing coordination measures with America, ironically by suspending the deconfliction phone line Trump’s military used to warn Russia that the attack was coming. The false-flag message about chemical weapons is also an opening provided by Obama. By working through the destruction process, Obama opened the door for Trump to make Russia pay for violating its promises.