This is what you get with a reflexive president. In a neck-snapping 48 hours, he has gone from ‘America First’ to plunging headlong into punching militarily into the heart of a conflict thousands of miles from the homeland. He has gone from incoherency to coherency. Or has he?
The coherent part is compelling: his predecessor made a sap of himself - and of the nation - by saying that the use of chemical weapons would be the red line that would trigger American action and then backed away when it was duly crossed (in part because of queasiness in London, if you recall.) This is the ‘America Strong’ president thinking.
That something was coming - in the end, a fairly nominal barrage of unmanned cruise missiles against a single target, a regime airfield close to Homs in western Syria - was clear when President Donald Trump raged against the use precisely of nerve gas against civilians, including “beautiful little babies”, by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad at a news conference alongside the visiting King Abdullah of Jordan in the Rose Garden on Wednesday.
In his mind, we imagine, Trump believes he has now repaired the damage done by Barack Obama. The world has been put on warning - and by the world we include Moscow as well as Damascus - that this President will use America’s awesome military power when his impulses are stirred. Never mind, if he travels through 180 degrees in just a few days to get to that point.
The result - again, his calculation - is that American power will mean something again. No longer will Washington be made a monkey of. This could have a salutary impact on parts of the world beyond Syria. Tehran is taking notice. So possibly is Pyongyang. It appears that the 70-odd Tomahawk missiles were launched from US ships in the Mediterranean within moments of the delegation of President Xi Jinping leaving a dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
This was not about any attack on the American homeland, notice. Woe betide, perhaps, any government that finds itself accused of backing any future attack that takes US lives on US soil.
Trump’s political instincts will tell him this will sit well with the American people. He’s right. He won the election partly because of an uneasiness in the heartland that under Obama the country had lost its muscle, even its confidence. For a few days, the qualms that guided Obama’s thinking - that Iraq and other experiences argued against further Arab entanglements - will be set aside. The pitch to Middle America is this: macho is in, mealy-mouthed is out.
But so much for coherency. We can take it from this that Trump will thump, when he wants to. Yet, the world will surely also conclude that this is a White House that on foreign policy, as on so many other matters, is all over the place. The contradictions and inconsistencies are simply overwhelming. This is the president who closed America to refugees from the Syrian bloodshed and who now evokes the death of those babies to send in the Tomahawks.
This a man who in 2013, when Obama was wrestling with precisely the question of whether or not to strike Syria, said, via Tweet, don’t do it. “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA - IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!” he said in one.
This is a man also who also in 2013 insisted that Obama should in any event get congressional approval before striking Assad directly. “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria-big mistake if he does not!”
Did Trump seek congressional approval? Clearly not, although daylight will give us an idea of whether he at least gave a heads-up to the leaders on the Hill about what was coming. Regardless, questions are already being asked about the legality of the strike. We will also be asking, of course, whether he offered the same courtesy to the allies. There was no time for any debating in the British parliament this time, that much we know.
As ever though, the most critical question is this: how carefully thought through was this action? It came very fast. Lest we forget, while US forces are on the ground in Syria taking the fight to Isis and collaborating groups of al-Qaeda (and in fact Trump has expanded US numbers there significantly) this is the first time America has targeted the regime directly.
It was 4 o’clock in the morning Moscow time when the Tomahawks took flight. There had been some inkling in recent days of a degree of breach opening between the Kremlin and Assad. Did the White House take that as a sign that striking the regime would not create the instant crisis with Vladimir Putin that might otherwise be expected? Did the two men actually talk before this happened? Again, we should find out soon. There is so much we don’t know.
“A warning shot” that was “necessary and proportionate” is how a White House official described the stikes. But as ever, we have no clue what comes next. This was a slap on the wrist of Assad only. Does Trump stop at this or is the deployment of fixed-wing aircraft next? Will we see ground forces deployed eventually, a perhaps logical next step that would sit altogether less well with those who voted Trump in?
What is the endgame of this action precisely? Even more basic, what was Trump hoping to achieve with the destruction of a few planes and a runway? Everything we know about him suggests he won’t have answers to either question. He just knew he wanted to hit Assad and at the same time prove his own and America’s masculinity.
But for right now, anyway, masculinity will do. His numbers will rise. And even some Democrats may hesitate to criticise. Hillary Clinton said this in her first public interview in New York just hours before the missiles flew: “I think we should have been more willing to confront Assad”. And to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, she went on: ”I really believe we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.“ Trump might almost have been listening.
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