Bombing Syria has had such a salutary impact on the punditocracy. The beautiful images that MSNBC host Brian Williams described, of Tomahawk missiles being launched from a destroyer in the Mediterranean, brought back the halcyon days of Desert Storm and Shock and Awe. Talking on Morning Joe on Friday morning, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offered fulsome praise for Donald Trump standing up as the last bulwark of defense for international norms and values.
Speaking on the same show, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatious summed up the widespread enthusiasm for Donald Trump’s Syria attack:
It sets the table. It establishes the credibility of American power. Trump’s problem, in dealing with the Chinese and everyone else is, is he big talk, he is bluster but no delivery. And by taking action quickly, and in a way that’s moved with surprising speed, I think he’s demonstrated this isn’t just talk. ‘I mean it. I’m going to enforce the positions that I take.’
The problem with this conclusion, of course, is that when Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against an airbase in Syria, he wasn’t actually enforcing a position that he had taken. Quite the contrary. Just a week earlier, his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had announced a shift in US policy toward Syria, accepting the “political reality” that the regime of Bashar Assad was likely to remain in place, in order shift the US focus to the defeat of ISIS.
Trump's suggestion that it was the televised images of the children mutilated by the attack that changed his view on Assad and impelled him to act was strikingly disingenuous. As horrific as the chemical weapons attack killing an estimated 70 Syrians was, it did not tell us anything we did not know already about Assad. The Bashar Assad whom Haley and Tillerson accepted as a political fact of life a week before the chemical attack last week had repeatedly used chemical weapons to kill upwards of 2,000 of his own people, and is the central figure in a civil war that has left a half a million Syrians dead, led 3 million Syrians to flee the country, and left 6.5 million internally displaced--out of a country with a pre-war population of 23 million.
Until this week, under the banner of his America First doctrine, Donald Trump had forsworn his role as 'president of the world' and the responsibilities of the United States as the protector of the global order. This week, he came full circle. In his remarks following the military action against the Assad regime, Trump declared that attacking Syria was in the vital, national security interest of the United States and its allies, and he embraced his responsibility to enforce United Nations edicts and international bans on the use of chemical weapons. Much to the chagrin of his most loyal supporters, his words mirrored the language used by George W. Bush and Barack Obama justifying United States military actions in the region on their watch. New military engagement in the Middle East--with the exception of destroying ISIS--was exactly what Trump had long railed against and had pledged to his supporters would never happen under his watch.
Members of the foreign policy establishment have been bending over backwards to identify the emergence of a global geo-political doctrine in Trump's action. Some see his Syria attack as a projection of strength, announcing to the world that the United States is back from the Obama years of timidity and prepared to reassume a position of muscular global leadership. For others, it was the strategic brilliance that stood out, as the attack sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jingping--with whom Trump was meeting at the time of the attack--that Trump is not a man to be trifled with--whether with respect to the South China Sea or North Korea--and that he is willing to use force and to act swiftly.
This is one more quintessentially Trump moment, where people interpret Trump's behavior through their own eyes. As a man with no real ideology, Trump has mastered the art of letting others see what they want to see in him. To economic conservatives, he is an economic conservative; to social conservatives, he a social conservative; and to white nationalists, he is a white nationalist. Now, realpolitik, great power internationalists who had despaired of having an isolationist in the White House are viewing his action through their own lens, while their historical neoconservative adversaries watched the same missile attack and are seeing glimpses of idealistic interventionism in Trump's action. Like the morning after one of his overnight tweetstorms, the world watched the missiles fly and scurried to interpret their meaning.
In the same vein, Washington Post guru Bob Woodward praised Trump in the wake of the attack for the swiftness of his "pivot" from the isolationist rhetoric that led him to accept the Assad regime last week to the robust internationalism that led him to bomb the regime this week. But if we know anything about Trump, it is that he does not pivot; what we saw in Syria was just Donald Trump being Donald Trump.
Reporting for the New York Times, Robin Lindsay and Dave Horn suggested that the Syria attack pointed to the outlines of an emerging Trump Doctrine, but in their case it was one that resonates with the Donald Trump we have come to know: "Don’t get roped in by doctrine... Mr. Trump dispensed with his own dogma and forced other world leaders to re-examine their assumptions about how the United States will lead in this new era." That assessment mirrors what Trump described during the campaign as his belief in strategic unpredictability, which, he argued, had the benefit of not letting your adversaries know what you might do next. Call it a doctrine if you must, but Trump's strategic unpredictability can also be seen simply as a justification for acting impulsively. Looked at through the lens of the Trump doctrine of strategic unpredictability, what we saw in Syria might be our first glimpse of Donald Trump with a nuclear-armed Twitter account.
In the days since the attack, it seems to have quickly shrunk in significance. The airbase hit in the missile strike is back in operations, and the Assad regime is once again targeting the town where the chemical attack occurred. If Trump's action was supposed to be a shot across the bow of the Assad regime, it is not yet apparent that the warning had great effect. Reflecting back on events over the weekend, it is apparent that the pronouncements of a coherent Trump Doctrine might have been a bit premature. The Syrian civil war continues unabated. It is hard to imagine how anyone expected otherwise from one missile strike.
While the strike was sold to Congress and the public as a one-off event, it is hard to imagine that there will not be more to come. Trump stood before the world and embraced his role as nothing less than the defender of the suffering children of Syria--"No child of God should ever suffer such horror"--and their anguish is nowhere near an end. And then there is the media coverage. It may have been fake news, but over the past few days, Donald Trump has had the best press he has seen in the short life of his presidency. Having gotten a whiff of the plaudits that come to a wartime president--in the early days at least--it is hard to imagine him letting go for a better grip.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.