In some ways, the most remarkable thing about President Trump’s decision to fire missiles at Syria last week was how oddly traditional he made it sound. As he explained his reasons for military action, our normally unorthodox president borrowed a well-worn list of justifications from his predecessors: United Nations resolutions, international norms, compassion for civilians (in this case, “beautiful babies”), even the proposition that “America stands for justice.”
It was as if the Donald Trump who ran as an America First isolationist had suddenly morphed, once confronted with real-life choices, into an old-fashioned internationalist.
“This could have been a declaration (from) John F. Kennedy, or either of the Bushes, or most other presidents since World War II,” said James F. Jeffrey, a former adviser to George W. Bush.
No wonder it was a head-snapping moment for many Trump acolytes. “Those who wanted us meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates,” complained Ann Coulter, the conservative provocateur.
Trump’s actions were every bit as traditional as his words.
The very limited attack (59 missiles, one airbase, a warning in advance) was a very familiar form of American power: a punitive strike, aimed at restoring the “red line” against chemical weapons that President Obama drew in 2010 but never enforced.
It was a sign that Trump doesn’t share Obama’s fear that almost any use of force is a step onto a slippery slope, leading to a quagmire. And it was a good idea — at least if it succeeds in persuading Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop using chemical weapons.
As with all such strikes, though, it came with a built-in dilemma: What if Assad doesn’t comply? If Syria uses chemical weapons again, does the United States attack again, or escalate — or back down?
To improve their chance of success, Trump aides emphasized how limited their goal is: solely to deter more use of banned warheads, not to seek the end of the Assad regime.
What explains Trump’s pivot?
The president ordered a big shift in U.S. policy, he said, partly because he saw heart-rending pictures of the victims on television.
“I will tell you, that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact,” he told reporters last week. “That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it.”
Despite his apparent horror, however, he still doesn’t have a clear policy on the country’s future.
In the space of the past week, one of his top aides said the United States was no longer focused on whether Assad remains in power; another said Assad’s departure is still a major goal.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Moscow this week to seek Russian help negotiating a political solution to Syria’s civil war. But except for that one 59-missile salvo, Tillerson doesn’t appear to have any more leverage than his predecessor, John F. Kerry, who spent months asking fruitlessly for a deal.
It’s also reasonable to wonder whether Trump’s new concern for U.N. resolutions reflects a genuine conversion for a politician who spent years deriding international institutions, or was merely a useful set of talking points as he tried to make a sale.
As Harvard’s Jack Goldsmith pointed out in the blog Lawfare, the terms Trump used to justify the airstrike were remarkably similar to those in the legal rationale drafted by the Obama administration in 2010, when it was preparing for a similar strike.
So if there’s a broader message here for other potential adversaries, from Iran and North Korea to China and Russia, it’s not entirely clear. Will they be more impressed by Trump’s willingness to use force or by the careful limits he imposed? Will they be struck most by his resolve — or by how whimsical the decision seemed to be?
What the president needs to do now is follow his traditional airstrike with some traditional diplomacy. He needs to send well-briefed officials around the world to explain to other countries what he means.
The Trump administration hasn’t done much of that — either because it isn’t sure what its aims are, or because it hasn’t filled dozens of important diplomatic jobs, or both. Until it does, Trump has a problem. He may think ambiguity and unpredictability are virtues, but they tempt other leaders, like Assad, to keep testing him — until they find out what his real limits are.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at email@example.com