President Trump’s Syria strike last week represented a remarkably abrupt reversal of position. Mr. Trump has long insisted that it would be a terrible idea for the US to get mixed up in Syria’s problems or try to oust the Assad regime.
That doesn’t mean it was a bad move, of course. Presidents are allowed to change their minds. Many Democrats and Republicans alike have applauded Trump’s stated attempt to draw a line at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
But across the political spectrum, the ease and speed with which Trump flipped his stance on the issue has given many lawmakers and political experts pause. It’s a stark reminder that the new administration doesn’t seem to be ideological in a traditional White House sense.
And that is worrisome not only to those who opposed his election, but also to conservatives who are now worried that Trump could abruptly change course on key priorities.
This is about more than the lack of a definable Trump foreign policy doctrine. On health care, the president seemed more interested in a Capitol Hill victory than the contents of a specific bill. On tax reform, it’s still unclear where the administration stands on major issues such as the border adjustment tax.
“The Syria bombing should be understood in the larger context of an administration that’s just hard to sort out on these issues,” says Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government at American University in Washington and author of “Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security.”
After 2013 chemical weapons attack, Trump urged restraint
Trump campaigned on the slogan “America First” – a phrase that dates to isolationist positions prior to World War II. He talked about foreign policy as a transactional bargain. Other countries were ripping the US off, in both trade and defense. Washington needed to look out only for the nation’s interests. Money and forces spent on other people? Bad.
Syria in particular seemed a quagmire, in Trump’s realist view. After the Assad regime killed 426 children and more than 1,000 adult civilians in an August 2013 chemical weapons attack, which was documented by US intelligence, Trump urged then President Barack Obama to refrain from attacking Assad in at least 10 different tweets.
Then came Assad’s latest gas attack on his citizens, illustrated by horrific photos, as the August 2013 attack had been. But this time, Trump responded differently. Perhaps it was because he is now president, not just a private citizen. In any case he seemed swayed by the human situation.
Only days after his administration indicated that Mr. Assad’s grip on power seemed assured, Trump and his officials were talking about the Syrian leader as somebody whose departure is now a prerequisite for peace.
“The United States fought for the people of Syria and told Assad, ‘No more’,” said US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Trump criticized for 'indiscipline'
The strategic implications of the US cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield have yet to play out. Much will depend on whether Trump decides to become involved in a larger effort to shape the Syria outcome.
But the speed and ease with which Trump appeared to move off a core foreign policy position startled many experts, even those who think the strike a good idea. After all, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and committed horrific war crimes with many sorts of munitions. Trump seemed swayed by pictures and emotion as much as cold logic.
That could cause foreign adversaries to try and use pictures and emotion to similarly hijack other US policies, according to Kori Schake, an expert in military strategy and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute in California.
Though the US strike was well-executed, “The indiscipline that has characterized Trump’s actions may lead him to emotional reactions without corresponding strategy,” writes Dr. Schake, who co-edited a 2016 book on US attitudes toward the military with now-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in Foreign Policy.
How flexible will Trump be on other issues?
The question now is whether this sort of situational flexibility extends to taxes, infrastructure, trade, and other upcoming issues.
Adaptability in reaching a goal in politics is one thing. Adaptability in the ideological underpinnings of the goal itself is another. Some staunch Trump supporters have grumbled in recent days that Trump is a closet Democrat, or at least willing to become more liberal if it means more winning and more popularity.
In that sense the Syria flip is of a piece with Trump’s lack of involvement with the actual substance of the health-care legislation that recently imploded in the House.
“If you watched the health-care debate, it was pretty clear they wanted victory,” says Professor Edelson of American University. “The policies didn’t seem that important.”
On taxes, too, Trump seems focused less on the details and more on a big and fuzzy picture. Lower tax rates are a given. But it’s unclear whether the president will push for reform of the entire tax structure – a likely grinding and difficult clash of interests that could make the health-care battle seem like a skirmish.
On trade Trump has spoken forcefully, but when it comes to actual policies, he’s moved cautiously so far. He hasn’t labeled China a currency manipulator, as he’d vowed to do on his first day in office during the campaign. He hasn’t slapped new tariffs on imported goods – yet.
In some ways Trump is certainly just learning the limitations of his office. But the Syria swerve may be an early indication that Trump has no overriding commitment to populism, or any other ideological persuasion, according to Jonah Goldberg in the right-leaning National Review.
“If Trump can abandon his position on this – all because of some horrific pictures on TV – what position is safe?” Mr. Goldberg writes.