President Donald Trump staked much of his 2016 campaign on vowing to solve problems at home instead of entangling the U.S. in conflicts abroad.
Yet as president, he’s gone the other way, deciding to launch airstrikes against Syria this weekend a second time since taking office in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizens.
Other presidents have promised an anti-interventionist policy only to switch course in office in the face of unexpected events, but for Trump it carries a unique political risk heading into a difficult midterm election, especially if the conflict escalates into a larger regional crisis or a confrontation with Russia or Iran. During his campaign, he blasted Republicans for leading the country into the Iraq War, argued the U.S. military was stretched too thin, and promised to end the U.S. foreign policy of “intervention and chaos.”
It was a message that strongly resonated with some independent voters and a conservative base, eager for solutions to slow wage growth, jobs being shipped overseas, the perception of unfair trade pacts, and the opioid epidemic.
“The president is underestimating how important his non-interventionist foreign policy was to his appeal and will regret having to now own his own Middle East boondoggle,” said one Republican close to the White House.
President George W. Bush famously campaigned on domestic issues such as education, taxes, and health care only to later embroil Americans in the Iraq War, a conflict that ended up driving away some conservatives from the Republican Party. President Barack Obama’s candidacy was launched in part on his opposition to that war, but he wound up supporting a so-called “surge” of troops there as the situation deteriorated during his time in office.
“When Bush was running for president, he was very much not into nation-building and into looking to home and then the fickle hand of foreign policy intervened and he too went down the path. That even happened to some extent to President Obama,” said John Weaver, a Republican political strategist who ran John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign and has been an outspoken critic of Trump. “This is pretty standard fare for presidents who run looking inward and end up having to deal with situations abroad.”
Senior administration officials told reporters on Saturday that the U.S. only decided to launch airstrikes after exhausting diplomatic and economic measures such as sanctions.
“This is the president’s course that he has been charting since he came into office last year,” said one senior administration official, who argued that Trump was “calling out in word and deed the bad actors who are trying to destabilize the region.”
But as recently as early April, however, Trump was calling for a quick withdrawal of American troops from Syria. At a news conference with leaders of the Baltic nations, Trump said: “It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.”
Now, less than two weeks later, his administration under the new leadership of National Security Adviser John Bolton has launched airstrikes in Syria. Some pockets of the administration vow more could come if Assad continues his use of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.
“I spoke to the president this morning and he said if the Syrian regime uses this poison gas again, the United States is locked and loaded,” said U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. “When our president draws a red line, our president enforces the red line.”
To some Republicans, this lack of agreement within the Trump administration on its Syria approach and alleged flip-flopping could damage the president politically.
“It shows a complete and total incongruence between what President Trump says and what he does,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist best known for helping to run Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “We were leaving Syria, and now we’re delivering a punitive military attack after the use of chemical weapons.”
He added that his problem is the apparent absence of a guiding strategic vision, though in this instance, like many mainline Republicans, he agrees with the policy decision to strike: “A military attack is just and appropriate, but that being said, American strategy in the region is confusing, opaque, contradictory and non-existent.”
Other Trump critics, however, note that a longer engagement with Syria would still pale against the administration’s other problems.
“If you listed all of the things that are hurting the president politically, this would not be in the top 50,” Weaver said about the airstrikes. “It is the sum total of all of his policy decisions and the various investigations that are damaging to him.”
But to people inside in the Trump orbit, the Syrian airstrikes showed off an approach to foreign policy that allows Republicans to take targeted action when needed without committing the U.S. to a never-ending war.
“President Trump campaigned on a strong foreign policy that would enforce red lines drawn in the international arena,” said Andy Keiser, a former senior official on the Trump transition and principal at the consulting firm Navigators Global. “The military strike in Syria is square within that emerging Trump doctrine: limited in nature, proportional to the attack and yet clear in the message it sends to Assad and his patrons in Moscow and Tehran that the gassing of innocents, including children, will not be tolerated.”
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