Here’s Newt last year at the convention, back when Trump was in “America First” mode, imagining a confrontation between NATO and Russia over Estonia…
…and here’s Newt last night, at a moment when Trump is in “world policeman” mode, imagining a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over Syria:
Compare the plain-spoken reference to nuclear war in the first, dovish clip to the euphemism in the second, hawkish clip (“he could then escalate above that”). Is there any way to reconcile these two positions? You could say, I guess, that Newt is all about spheres of influence. The key point about Estonia, in theory, is that it’s on Russia’s own doorstep; if they want to assert dominion there, it would be intrusive of NATO and the United States to try to stop them. Syria is further-flung, located in a part of the world where the U.S. has recently enjoyed greater influence than Russia, and so the calculus changes — even though the specter of nuclear war haunts both scenarios.
But there are other ways to look at it. By now Putin may view dominating Syria as a more important strategic interest for Russia than dominating Estonia is. They need their Mediterranean naval base, they’re enjoying the leverage they’ve gained over the Middle East, and after having invested so much military prestige in propping up Assad they can’t afford to see him fall now, especially to an American intervention. Putin could be more willing to fight over Syria than over Estonia. Conversely, arguably America should be more willing to fight over Estonia than over Syria. America’s national interest in shielding Estonia from Russian intervention is greater than our interest in shielding Syrians from Assad is, not because Estonia itself is vital to American strategy but because NATO is. If you want to keep Russia out of eastern and then western Europe, showing them that an incursion into even the most junior NATO partner won’t be tolerated is key to preserving NATO’s credibility and deterrent power. Whereas in Syria, punishing Assad achieves what? It won’t send Russia fleeing from the country. It may not even convince Assad to give up chemical weapons. Why risk nuclear war over a conflict most Americans perceive as mostly immaterial to U.S. national security?
But maybe we’re giving Newt too much credit in assuming a principled distinction here. Maybe he’s guilty of old-fashioned partisan hackery in switching from dove to hawk at the precise moment Trump did. If so, he wouldn’t be the only Republican who is:
In 2013, when Barack Obama was president, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 22 percent of Republicans supported the U.S. launching missile strikes against Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians.
A new Post-ABC poll finds that 86 percent of Republicans support Donald Trump’s decision to launch strikes on Syria for the same reason. Only 11 percent are opposed.
Partisan hackery or something more? If you want to defend Republicans’ change of heart, you could chalk it up to greater confidence in the new commander-in-chief. But if you do, you need to explain the Democratic numbers: Just 38 percent supported Obama’s Syria strikes versus 37 percent who support Trump’s. Democrats have been strikingly consistent in doubting the wisdom of attacking Syria, no matter who the C-in-C is. Republicans haven’t.
In lieu of an exit question, here’s an interesting piece suggesting that Russia is quietly “furious” with Assad for his ill-advised gas attack, as it complicated their hoped-for detente with Trump for no good reason and exposed their 2013 disarmament deal in Syria with Assad and Obama as a sham. That makes sense, but it raises two questions. One: If Russia is keen not to antagonize Trump lest it give his advisors a lever to turn him from Russia dove into Russia hawk, why’d they go ahead with violating the INF Treaty? And two: If they’re “furious” with Assad for attacking Idlib with sarin, how to explain the presence of that Russian drone over the hospital in the aftermath of the attack? Surely someone in the Russian chain of command knew what was up and could have stopped him.