As the crisis in Syria deepened, Barack Obama pursued a policy of all talk and no action. President Trump’s policy can be described as no talk and then action.
Once again defying convention, Trump struck Syria decisively on Thursday, throwing Dems who have been caricaturing him as a puppet of Putin into a state of perplexity. Where Obama famously “led from behind” — a rhetorical nod to his feckless and slavish regard for “international consensus” — Trump’s strike sends the signal to world leaders, including the Chinese premier with whom he is now meeting, that he takes his cues from nobody.
What’s likely to happen now is that Putin will follow Trump in finding a resolution to the crisis. Russia grumbled about Trump’s strike, but not as loudly as one might have expected. Both Trump and Putin appear already in agreement on one point: that a post-Assad future can’t involve any slackening in the war on ISIS or give an opening to Islamic radicals.
The media is casting Trump’s strike as a “contradiction,” without bothering to explain what he is contradicting. An isolationism that he never held? The “America First” policies that he espoused on the campaign trail didn’t exclude the use of military force, and on Thursday night he justified the strike on nationalist grounds:
Tonight I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched. It is in this vital, national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.
Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
The speech had a Reaganesque flavor to it, with plain language about Assad’s “barbaric” behavior, along with several theistic touches:
My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many, even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
He closed by invoking “God’s wisdom” and asked that “We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.”
The politics of Trump’s strike leave the Democrats scrambling for a new line of attack against him. Before the strike, they sounded like anti-Russian hawks. After it, some of them now sound like doves and lashed out at Trump for not checking with them first.
As the Washington Examiner reported, “Democratic lawmakers and members of the press criticized President Trump Thursday for what they said was a military action against Syria without approval from Congress.”
The Examiner quoted several Democrats who described the strike as “unconstitutional,” an “act of war,” and a slight to the international community. Other Democrats, such as Ben Cardin, perhaps recognizing that this strike is a political winner for Trump, adopted a more circumspect tone. A few even offered words of sparing praise if you listened closely enough. “Making sure Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price is the right thing to do,” said Chuck Schumer. Despite its pained construction, that line qualifies as a compliment to Trump.
Meanwhile, Ted Cruz welcomed the strike as end to an era of “Obama foreign policy failures,” even as he stressed that any further action “be justified as protecting the vital national security interests of America – including decisive action to prevent chemical weapons from falling into the hands of radical Islamic terrorists.”
This much is clear: Gone is the half-Assad policy of Obama for whom the rhetoric of “red lines” served as a substitute for enforcing them. Trump’s pragmatic approach is the exact reverse: speak less and strike more.