How Unusual Was the Trump Administration’s Reversal on Syria?

The current president is not the only commander in chief to change his mind with respect to U.S. military action, but the timeline for his about-face may be far shorter than most.

President Trump speaks next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

“We need unpredictability,” then-candidate Donald Trump once told The New York Times while discussing his ideal foreign policy. More recently, the president told reporters: “I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way.”

So far, the president seems to be living up to those standards. Trump has a long track record of arguing against U.S. military intervention in Syria. Yet despite that, the president ordered a missile strike targeting a Syrian military airfield on Thursday evening. The United States carried out the strike in retaliation for what officials claim was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in a recent attack.

Within the span of a week, the administration also appeared to reverse its stance on whether the United States should attempt to oust Assad from power. Late last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad’s fate “will be decided by the Syrian people.” But by Thursday afternoon, in the wake of the chemical attack, Tillerson said that “steps are under way” to organize an international coalition to remove the Syrian leader. Making it difficult to discern precisely what that meant, however, Tillerson told reporters after Thursday’s missile launch not to “extrapolate” any “change in our policy or position relative to our military activities in Syria.”

To get a sense of how Trump’s apparent about-face stacks up in a historical context—and how the strike compares with early military actions taken by recent U.S. presidents—I spoke with Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Clare Foran: Are there previous examples of presidents who, early in their administrations, appeared to reverse positions they held before taking office about the use of force?

Stephen Biddle: The short answer would be yes. The clear example would be George W. Bush. He campaigned on the idea that the U.S. military was overstretched and we ought to do less. When he was running for office, he dismissed the notion that the United States should be involved in nation-building, and suggested he would not pursue military intervention to the extent that President [Bill] Clinton had.

But after 9/11, very shortly after taking office, Bush not only took the United States to war in Afghanistan, but in 2003 did so in Iraq as well. He famously, on the campaign trail, argued against long-term, grinding commitments to peacekeeping missions, and both of those early military interventions turned into long-term, grinding, stabilization commitments.

Foran: Do you think there’s a parallel with former President Barack Obama’s administration as well? After he won the New Hampshire primary in 2008, Obama vowed to “end this war in Iraq,” and he also said “we will finish the job against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.” But not long into his first term, in 2009, he announced that 17,0000 more American troops would be sent to Afghanistan.

Biddle: It’s a parallel in some ways, but not others. Obama campaigned on the idea that Iraq was a bad war, and one that he opposed in the first place, and he said that we should get out. But that’s not how he talked about Afghanistan. On the campaign trail, he talked about fighting al-Qaeda there, and argued that the United States needed more resources there and needed to reinforce that fight. So the Obama surge in Afghanistan wasn’t, strictly speaking, a reversal of something he had said on the campaign trail—it was a fulfillment of a campaign promise, in fact.

That said, Obama appears to have changed his mind on several use-of-force issues over the course of his presidency. He campaigned on the idea that Iraq was not in the U.S. interest—and that we ought to get out—but even after announcing that the war in Iraq would imminently come to an end in 2011, the administration sent American troops back to the region after the fall of Mosul in 2014.

Similarly, Obama campaigned on the idea that we should reinforce the fight in Afghanistan, and then ends up trying desperately to withdraw from Afghanistan by the time he leaves office, only to face difficulty in his attempts to do so.

Foran: So, then, how do you compare some of the foreign-policy reversals from past presidents to the Trump administration’s apparent reversal on Syria—including statements from officials that seemed to change rapidly with respect to Assad’s removal from power? How does that time frame compare with past presidents, and does it surprise you?

Biddle: I don’t think there’s any precedent for any president turning on a dime like what we’ve now seen from the Trump administration with respect to Syria. It’s certainly fast, but I don’t know that it’s surprising. This president has shown plenty of willingness in the past to change his mind. To say it’s surprising would be to say that one hasn’t been following his Twitter feed very closely. But it is extremely unusual, at the very least, to see how quickly the administration changed course in terms of its Syria policy.

Foran: Even if Trump’s reversal is unique, do you think it illustrates a challenge that all presidents face in attempting to reconcile how they talked about foreign policy before taking office with what it means to actually implement a strategy as president?

Biddle: That is a challenge for most presidents, yes. If you’re not a former or sitting vice president, or a former CIA director, you’re not going to have had access to the kind of information that you would once you get into the government. The executive branch has many thousands of people who exist to help staff and assist in making these kinds of decisions that no presidential campaign has access to. On the campaign trail, you’re inevitably making decisions and assertions based on far more limited analysis. The stakes and the consequences also look pretty different when you move from hypotheticals to taking responsibility for real-world, life-and-death situations.

Foran: What about the time frame in terms of Trump taking this military action at the start of his presidency? This wasn’t the president’s first, since he approved a raid in Yemen soon after his inauguration, but does the intervention in Syria seem early into a presidency for this scale of military action?

Biddle: There have been a variety of situations in which presidents for different reasons—taking office during a war, for instance—have been asked to make military decisions pretty quickly after taking office. The September 11 attacks occurred within the first year of George W. Bush’s first term in office, so that was fairly early, though not as early as the first 100 days. Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, and within the first year he had to respond to a Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. The Bay of Pigs invasion took place in April 1971, just a few months after John F. Kennedy had taken office. [Harry] Truman took office in the middle of World War II and [Richard] Nixon took office during the Vietnam War, so both were making military decisions early in their presidencies.

Foran: Trump argued on the campaign trail that unpredictability is a strength in foreign policy. Do you think that his administration’s decision to so quickly adopt a different course on Syria will ultimately help the United States in its foreign-policy goals? And are there any historical precedents for that?

Biddle: Uncertainty can have a deterrent value in that other countries might look at the United States and not want to provoke the administration if they are unsure of what the outcome might be. But ultimately, creating uncertainty about what you might do ends up being a weaker deterrent than the certainty that you will do something, or that you will act a certain way.

Richard Nixon tried something similar with what has been described as the “madman theory,” where during the Vietnam War Nixon hoped that the North Vietnamese and their allies would think that he was crazy and he could do anything. If the alternative to that is being viewed as feckless, then that’s probably more persuasive, but it’s no guarantee of success in achieving foreign-policy aims. And uncertainty always creates risk, too, by introducing a heightened degree of instability.