“There’s a new sheriff in town.” That’s what David Ignatius said on Morning Joe in response to overnight cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airfield as punishment for using chemical weapons against his own people. John McCain, who hasn’t had a kind word for the President since, well, ever, purred his approval noting that Trump’s national security team is the best in American history.
The bipartisan war party (“BWP”) is feeling good sensing in the missile attack on Syria that President Trump is changing direction. Gone are the days of an America First foreign policy that asks first the question, “How does this protect the American people and their interests?” They sense that the moral imperialism of the Bush years and its concomitant military adventurism are back and with it their return to status and power. In short, they think Trump won the election but that Washington won the peace. It’s been known to happen, but some circumspection is in order.
Sorry BPW, but one missile strike does not mean a new U.S. war in the middle east. And the Trump administration officials that McCain was praising have been very clear about that the president’s Syria policy is true to his campaign promises. In fact, just last week U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said “You pick and choose your battles. And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing our priorities, and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out. Our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.”
The Military Times reports that, “White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the U.S. approach was being driven by a new ‘reality’ and that Assad’s future had to be a decision for the Syrian people. Similar statements were made earlier by U.S. Cabinet members speaking in Ankara, London, and at the United Nations.”
So what does the missile strike mean? Trump supporters are concerned that it signals a return to the neoconservative globalism they roundly rejected last year. One can understand the concern. The attack on Syria is getting good reviews from all the wrong people. NeverTrumper Max Boot is happy. So is Anne Marie Slaughter, a former high ranking official at the State Department under Hillary Clinton who tweeted: “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!!”
Meanwhile Trump supporters remember that it was Donald Trump himself who tweeted in 2013 that “The President must get Congressional approval before attacking Syria—big mistake if he does not!” That remains true today, if this strike represents part of a bigger shift in policy. But at this point there is no reason to believe that is the case.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week, “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Yet, chemical and nuclear weapons represent a unique threat and while the United States was under no obligation to act, this strike can be seen as statement against the use of weapons of mass destruction. And it is certainly in the national security interests of the United States to see that the use and proliferation of such weapons is not normalized.
Underscoring this, Secretary Tillerson reiterated U.S. policy Friday morning in light of the military action in Syria: “I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today. There has been no change in that status.”
Nor does there appear to be any increased appetite for entangling foreign conflicts more generally. Drawing a line—red or otherwise—on the use of chemical weapons does not necessarily indicate a broad change in policy or philosophy. The temptation among the political and pundit class to draw straight line extrapolations from every event is overwhelming yet more often than not leads to false conclusions. It was not so long ago that the same pundits who see the Syria attack as a sign of more to come were telling us that the president who ordered it would never see the inside of the White House. Their crystal ball has been proven to be a bit foggy.
Remember also the broader geopolitical context of this attack. It occurred just before President Trump was set to meet with Chinese Premier Xi about, among other things, North Korean nuclear weapons. And while we don’t want to be drawn into another winless war in the Middle East we do want to remind the world that America’s commitment to peace through strength is more than just rhetoric.
What’s more, this strike may serve a shrewd political purpose. It further blunts the baseless yet oft-repeated charge that Trump is somehow beholden to Vladmir Putin and it has caused some of his strongest critics to offer unstinting praise. Elliot Abrams wrote in The Weekly Standard, “the Trump administration can truly be said to have started only now” and that President Trump “finally accepted the role of Leader of the Free World.”
The fact Abrams and his colleagues only see Trump as fully president when he is waging war abroad speaks volumes about their politics and the critique that Trump and many who support him made of them.
But if, in the afterglow of last night’s cruise missile attacks the BWP sees a return to the Bush era status quo I would urge them caution. And if for the same reason Trump supporters fear betrayal I would urge them patience: A single missile attack need be nothing more than that. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.