Like many President Trump supporters, I am in shock over the recent attack in Syria. While it drew praise from his opponents on the Right and Left, it deviates greatly from his stated intentions on foreign policy.
Until now, I never wavered in supporting Trump, and even forgave his moderation on certain matters as necessary compromises in complex politics. But the decision on Syria was all his own, and has many loyal supporters like me wondering if we’ve been subjected to the biggest bait and switch of all time.
Trump’s America First Position Was Unique
Trump ran on a revolutionary platform and, despite all odds, won the presidency. He channeled the feelings of frustration many Americans feel over a bipartisan consensus that runs contrary to their instincts and interests.
Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and put “America First.” Listeners understood the former as reducing the perks and privileges of the entrenched bureaucracy in Washington. On the latter, he counseled a policy of greater realism. He questioned foreign policy experts’ ability to deliver security to the American people, and he was right. Republicans typically are pro-military to the point of servility. Trump had the temerity to note the military’s lack of recent successes, whether with ISIS or in Iraq.
More broadly, he rejected the notion of America as a sacrificial lamb whose universalism must extend outside its borders. Contrary to the Left’s notions of “humanitarian war” and the mainstream GOP’s concept of America as an “indispensable” nation that must provide “leadership,” Trump defined the interests of America narrowly on the solid ground of tangible safety, security, and prosperity. No more dubious campaigns such as Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Bosnia. Never again would we endure the casual invocation of “never again.”
His views were rightly described as “Jacksonian,” insofar as they were not pacifist, but aggressively focused in service of a distinct people with a distinct identity and interests. This sharply contrasted with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and other opponents in the GOP primary, who made a cult object of America’s “exceptionalism” and fell over themselves to provoke Russia.
Trump was also very distinct from Hillary Clinton, who championed her role in the Libya campaign. He questioned her “experience” as “bad experience,” because it was so intertwined with that campaign’s failure.
Trump’s America First nationalism affirmed the bonds of language, blood, and shared history and prioritized them over those of strangers. In this sense, he was the only patriot in the race. His globalist opponents—whether Rubio, McCain, or Clinton—embrace a limitless concept of “stopping evil” that says the interests of one’s countrymen are equal to those of a stranger. However noble that universalism may be, it has no pedigree within conservatism. In wars ranging from Vietnam to Iraq, it has also been alien to most Americans and the people doing our fighting.
Prior to and during the election, Trump consistently voiced skepticism of Obama’s policy in Syria: a convoluted strategy of arming anti-Assad moderate rebels, while opposing Assad and Assad’s mortal enemy in ISIS itself. As he said in a 2013 tweet, “We should stay the hell out of Syria, the ‘rebels’ are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS? ZERO.” Indeed.
The Recent Crisis in Syria
Only days after Trump’s signal that our national goals in Syria were chiefly limited to taking out ISIS, it remains hard to believe Assad had employed chemical weapons. At the time of the popular outcry against President Obama’s intention to go to war after the Assad’s regime’s supposed use of poison gas in 2013, reports suggested the rebels may have employed the gas, and the question remains unsettled. Multiple reports exist of ISIS rebels using chemical weapons in Iraq several dozen times in the last six months.
While it is not beyond belief Assad used chemical weapons, it seems more likely and certainly more in the interest of the rebels to do so, as they have been losing ground to Russian and Syrian forces in recent months. Blaming Assad for “using chemical weapons against his own people” would, at the very least, get America’s attention. If this were a false flag operation, it succeeded in spades.
Even if Assad had used chemical weapons, the main issue of America’s interests remains the same: this is a civil war in a resource-poor country for which there is no obvious benefit to toppling Assad. This is so not least because in that power vacuum the larger problem of ISIS will only grow stronger. Just as in World War II, when we teamed up with Stalin to defeat Hitler, there are times we must choose the lesser of two evils.
Why Did Trump Do It?
So why did the Syria strikes happen? Trump’s own explanation is the most disturbing: “Trump turned to his senior staff, talking about how ‘horrible’ and ‘awful’ the footage out of Syria was, said one top adviser.” Undoubtedly, these images are horrible. But so are the images of dead children mowed down by Islamists in Sweden and France.
War is always an awful thing. This is precisely why something more than sympathy—insight, belief, and philosophy—must adjudicate between the competing images of atrocity that can be easily paraded before the world on CNN.
Trump always seemed to understand that war is an expensive, unpredictable venture, not to be gotten into for mere “humanitarian” reasons. While Trump could never be confused with a policy wonk, his instincts are legendary. Also nationalism thankfully accords with natural instincts for one’s own; it does not require the mental acrobatics of neoconservatives, who somehow connect the dots to make the business of who rules South Ossetia and Yemen ours.
If a few tear-jerker images can move Trump (or anyone) to support a war that he always opposed, we’re in bad shape indeed, because the media (and the rebels who feed them propaganda) can decide what we see. We see dead Syrians supposedly killed by Assad, but no dead residents of Donetsk killed by NATO-supplied artillery. If it’s our job to prevent atrocities everywhere and always, we will be at war everywhere and always, because the world is full of wars, disputes, bad people, and atrocities.
A second explanation is members of Trump’s family have gained influence in a simmering internal war between the forces of nationalism and nepotism. Steven Bannon, the voice of populist nationalism in the Trump White House, is a falling star, while Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, are increasingly influential. Trump ran and won as a nationalist, but such nationalism is unlike anything the lifelong Democrat Kushner or the respectable centrist Ivanka could relate to. They are elite, wealthy Manhattanites, with the instincts and views such a pedigree would suggest. Thus, we can expect less “Muslim ban” and more “tax cuts for the rich” and “international leadership.”
A final explanation is probably the most defensible, if true. Namely, even if we generally should not be involved in wars of this kind, there is a security benefit to maintaining a strong norm against using weapons of mass destruction that we can express in a proportional punitive raid without endorsing full-blown regime change. I suspect this is the view of many on Trump’s national security team, such as James Mattis and H.R. McMaster. This theory at least roughly fits with everything Trump previously said he believes. Unlike humanitarian wars, it also has natural limits. Notably, however, this is not how the decision was defended.
The best hope for tamping down Middle East terrorism is through secular—even brutal—strongmen such as Assad. The devolution of Iraq and Libya into Hobbesian struggles of all-against-all in the wake of American regime change should give some pause to those who counsel doing so today.
Business as Usual?
I am feeling deeply ambivalent at the moment, if not a bit foolish. I and others supported Trump precisely because his rejection of globalism, particularly on foreign policy. His consistency on this issue extended prior to his presidential campaign.
Foreign policy matters because when it goes badly, it goes spectacularly badly, as it did on September 11, 2001. It is a complex realm where good intentions count for little, and hubris yields heartache and disaster. If Trump is coopted by the foreign policy establishment, his presidency will be a waste, because their globalist goal requires open borders at home and our involvement in expensive wars abroad, destroying our ability to exist as a distinct people and doing nothing to enhance our flourishing as such.
The Bill Kristols and #NeverTrumpers now cheering Trump on will gladly cheer more loudly for a more committed replacement in four years. At that point, they will remember all of their gripes about his foul language, style, and deviations from Heritage Foundation orthodoxy.
Their betrayal is completely predictable, as Trump will prove an inconsistent executor of their globalist ideology at best. It is Trump’s sudden change of course that has been so surprising and disappointing to his core supporters, because his expressed views were closest to our nationalist beliefs, and his previous willingness to withstand the establishment was an extraordinary display of endurance. The whole point of his campaign was America First, at home and abroad. To see Trump transform into a knee-jerk interventionist in fewer than 100 days is astonishing.