There are several ways to look at Donald Trump's abrupt about-face on Syria. One is that Thursday night's Tomahawk missile strike on an airbase near Homs – a so-called "proportional response" to the Assad regime's apparent sarin gas attack on Tuesday – was a cave to the Pentagon and a signal that at long last "the adults have taken control," as a military source, echoing the entire D.C. foreign policy establishment, puts it. Some believe a nascent national security strategy may be in the works. On the other hand, Trump is Trump.
Thursday evening, shifty eyed and uncomfortable in front of dual teleprompters at Mar-a-Lago, Trump made a scripted assertion that it was in the "vital national security interest of the United States" to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons like sarin. "The use of that term, 'vital national interest,' was most welcome, and I agree," says one former Pentagon official. "The prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is in our vital national interest as well as the vital interests of our allies. Now the administration needs to flesh out our remaining vital national interests and build a strategy that meets those interests."
The U.S. arguably hasn't had a cogent national security strategy since the first Gulf War, which to some was the last time America went to war over clearly defined goals – in that case, retaking oil-rich Kuwait, upon whom we were still dependent. Fake WMD claims aside, there was no pressing national interest in invading Iraq a second time, and that lack of focus has continued as the U.S. has maintained its presence in the region for the better part of 15 years, playing whack-a-mole with ISIS and Al Qaeda. Trump has been lauded for putting together a strong national security team, though what power they've actually had continues to be a question.
"We have strong leaders in people like [Defense Secretary James] Mattis and [National Security Adviser H.R.] McMaster, and they've been working hard," says the former Pentagon official. "That doesn't mean the NSC was working hard." One central problem was the sidelining of virtually anyone with national security bona fides over perceived disloyalty. "Anyone who was never Trump or maybe never Trump was immediately blackballed, along with all Democrats, and a lot of independents, which is a lot of people," another national security source notes. McMaster now seems to be asserting control. "Let's hope," says the former military official. "When you're running your policy not through the chief of staff or the president, but through amateurs like Jared [Kushner] or [Steve] Bannon – I mean, do you understand how screwed up that is? And it's dangerous."
The news that Trump consigliere Bannon may – may – have been sidelined following his removal from the NSC Principles Committee was welcome news in White House circles, though even if Trump has pushed aside some of his more troubling staffers, the president still ultimately calls the shots. It's quite possible that he's learning on the job, notes one national security analyst. On the other hand, "to treat him as if he's a serious man making serious decisions is to ignore history," he says. "Politically, this move carries many benefits: distracting from his pathetic approval rating, resetting his presidency, proving he doesn't take orders from his campaign chairman, Vladimir Putin. Were this a Democratic president, or even a sane Republican, I'd probably be wary but supportive. But I'm still trying to get my head around what it means that a president who explicitly refused to allow Syrian refugee children to enter America is now launching Tomahawk missiles on their behalf into Syria."
There is something almost unseemly about Trump now using the moral authority of the United States to defend the helpless children he condemned and abandoned during the refugee crisis, he notes. "What happens when the wrong person does what might otherwise be the right thing? Can an unprincipled, fundamentally unserious person take on a principled, serious action in a legitimate way?"
Possibly, but not likely. The Syria attack is right in keeping with Trump's basic shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach, which has been seen in policies ranging from the immigration ban to the botched attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But there are real risks for escalation – angering the Russians or Hezbollah, and tempting North Korea, to name just a few – and Trump, who for years opposed any sort of intervention, seems woefully ill-prepared for an all-out war.
"People are so hungry to believe that they have a solid, 'presidential' commander-in-chief at the helm that they are willing to overlook everything Donald Trump said before Thursday – including on Monday and Tuesday," says Daniel Benaim, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a former Obama administration official. "But there's nothing presidential about launching missiles in service of a policy that didn't exist until a few days ago. And when it comes to each new declaration that now is the moment when Trump finally became 'presidential,' people get tired of buying the same horse twice. Launching a few missiles from offshore is in some ways the easy part, and the one that better fits the impulsive nature of a president who seems to think more in macho gestures to win news cycles than long-term politico-military strategies to end wars.
"The bigger question is whether the experienced members of Trump's team can help him leverage this short-term burst of American power projection toward a strategy to hasten the end of a civil war that has been wrecking the country and sucking foreign powers into a vortex of instability," Benaim says. "Strategy – not strikes – should be the measure of presidential leadership."
President Donald Trump announces attack on Syria.