“Just so you understand, we’re not going into Syria,” Donald Trump told Maria Bartiromo this morning on Fox Business Channel while explaining why he ordered the military strike on Shayrat air base. Trump tells Bartiromo that he has no intention of starting a new war with Bashar al-Assad, but the atrocities of the chemical-weapons attack on civilians in Syria required a response — one that Trump says Barack Obama should have provided in the first place:
— FOX Business (@FoxBusiness) April 12, 2017
Politico reported on this exchange last night before it aired in its entirety:
“We’re not going into Syria,” Trump told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo in an interview that will air Wednesday morning.
“But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons,” he continued, segueing into how the Syrian regime violated an Obama-era agreement not to use chemical weapons without completing his initial thought.
In the Trump administration’s first statement last week condemning what it called Syria’s “reprehensible” attack, the president labeled Assad’s “heinous actions” a result of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” and faulted Obama for drawing a so-called red line but failing to act militarily once it was crossed. He doubled down Tuesday.
“Look, what I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it,” Trump said. “And you would have had a much better — I think Syria would be a lot better off right now than it has been.”
Well, private citizen Trump had a much different take on that at the time — as did many but not all Republicans rallying to Trump on this action, as Allahpundit pointed out yesterday. (Candidate Trump, however, was consistent, saying last year that “you have to go after them big league.”) Some of the difference in the latter comes from “blind partisanship” as Allahpundit rightly points out, but some of it probably comes from the bias toward action over inaction. Had Obama immediately fired off an airstrike on Assad in 2013, some of the opposition to intervention might have not solidified as it when Obama hesitated. The initial bipartisan support for the strike on Qaddafi’s forces near Benghazi in 2011 is probably a good measure of that — and that support remained significant enough for Hillary Clinton to brag later in 2011 that “we came, we saw, he died.”
Right now, Trump’s benefiting from a bias toward action as well as partisanship just as Obama did in 2011, but he’d better not get too caught up with either. As I write in my column for The Week, that bipartisan cheering for the Syrian reprisal can be a siren song for Trump and lead him straight into a trap:
These gains and the rare moment of bipartisanship might persuade Trump to pursue a more traditional Republican interventionist policy. But regardless of whether or not that is the correct policy, it’s likely to become a trap for Trump, and a political dead end as well.
Politically, such a move would present a sharp reversal from the promises Trump made in the campaign to the anti-establishment voters who carried him to victory last November. More than most presidents, Trump has to rely on his base for political capital. Unlike Barack Obama, whose personal popularity saw him through political setbacks, or even George W. Bush, whose own promises of a more “humble” foreign policy fell by the wayside after 9/11, Trump has no personal-popularity margin for error. …
Already, some in Washington want to see Trump go much further along the interventionist spectrum in Syria. After a fumble by press secretary Sean Spicer in mentioning “barrel bombs” as a potential red line (Spicer walked it back later), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN that the U.S. should respond militarily if Assad uses barrel bombs. Calling this red line “long overdue,” Graham argued that the principle and policy should focus on what happens on the ground, not necessarily the methods used. “It’s not about how you killed the babies,” Graham declared, “it’s the fact that you’re slaughtering innocent people through air power.”
Applying that standard to the Syrian civil war may well be justifiable considering the brutality of Assad, but it would require a full-scale military intervention. That would produce a hot confrontation with Russia, which has been firm on its support for Assad, and with Iran too. That may still be the right action to take, but it would require a president who is temperamentally inclined toward such military actions, and a base of political support to enter a new war. Trump has neither; he is much more inclined toward insular policies, and the country clearly does not want to escalate the conflict, as both polls showed.
As conservative radio host and early Trump backer Laura Ingraham put it: “I’m not sure getting rid of Bashar al-Assad was at the top of the list of the people in Pennsylvania.”
We tend to ignore lessons on foreign adventures, but one which we should recall in particular is this: there is no point in conducting one without being fully committed to it for the long haul. We have learned that lesson in Iraq, and are already dealing with the consequences of that lack of commitment with the rise of ISIS and genocides in Nineveh and elsewhere in the region. Trump is not an interventionist by nature, and he’s not going to transform into one overnight — because (and this is more to the point) the electorate isn’t interventionist either.
Even if interventionism is the correct policy from a moral standpoint, it’s simply not possible unless and until the case has been made and voters elect committed interventionists on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. They made their choice painfully clear in the presidential election, in which they explicitly rejected the “we came, we saw, he died” candidate for the “America First” winner. Any further debate on this point is academic — or should be, anyway.