President Donald Trump inserted himself into the turbulent Syrian civil war Thursday with a missile strike against an airfield controlled by government forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
The attack against Assad for his purported use of chemical weapons was cheered on by the Washington establishment — including Democrats, liberals and NeverTrump conservatives who all despise Trump.
More surprising than his new fans is the reversal of the president’s long record of opposing intervention against Assad and regime change in the Middle East — which disillusioned many of his biggest champions.
For instance, in tweets he sent out when then-President Obama weighed a military strike against Assad in 2013, Trump stated:
“We should stay the hell out of Syria, the ‘rebels’ are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS? ZERO.”
“What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval.”
And those are just two of the many tweets he posted in opposition to the idea the United States should bomb Assad. On the campaign trail, he described fighting Assad and ISIS at the same time as “madness and idiocy.”
He has also implied that the desire for regime change in Syria from his hawkish Republican and Democrat opponents would lead to “World War III.” (RELATED: All Those Times Trump Said We Shouldn’t Fight Wars In The Middle East)
That message appears to have been abruptly abandoned this week.
The non-interventionism Trump preached during the presidential campaign was an essential component to the rough ideological framework that is “Trumpism.” Trump, himself, has never been consistent in most of his political views or positions. (RELATED: Nationalism Beyond Trump)
However, he won the Republican primary and presidential race with a distinct message of putting “America First” in foreign policy, immigration and trade. In foreign policy, that meant eschewing the nation-building and liberal interventionism of the past two presidential administrations and focusing primarily on the threat of radical Islam.
America’s interests would be the sole determining factor in how the nation acted in the world.
But the Syria strike was a textbook case of liberal interventionism and served as a boost to Islamic extremists fighting the Assad regime. There was no real American interest served by the strike, outside of reinforcing the image of the U.S. as the world’s policeman — a role Trump openly criticized on the campaign trail.
It’s no wonder true believing Trumpists were able to make #FireKushner, in reference to Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, the top trending topic on Twitter Friday night. Kushner championed the Syrian strike and is seen by the Trumpists as a “globalist” who has no interest in promoting Trump’s nascent nationalism. (RELATED: #FireKushner Takes Over Twitter)
The reason why the Syrian attack was such a big deal to a key part of Trump’s base is how much it resembled past interventions that were based on poor premises with sketchy end goals. We struck an Assad airfield in retaliation to a chemical attack that was likely the work of the government, but hadn’t been fully confirmed yet. This move was pushed by Trump-hating media outlets who kept showing dead children 24/7.
The administration maintained that it was a one-off strike, but still insinuated the need for regime change — without considering the alternatives to the present strong-man government.
The military interventions in Iraq and Libya were also initiated under similar circumstances — not-thoroughly investigated premises, media cheerleading, and shady alternatives to present government — with disastrous consequences.
In Syria, “moderate” rebels hardly exist anymore. ISIS controls large parts of the country and has amply proven it is far worse than Assad. Besides ISIS, one of the most powerful rebel groups is an organization with ties to al-Qaeda. Tahrir al-Sham, the new name for the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Front, is gaining significant ground in Syria and would benefit immensely if Assad was weakened or taken out entirely.
There has been no real alternative to Assad put forward to lead the beleaguered nation — unless the experts consider fanatical, al-Qaeda supported Islamists a better option than the current regime.
On top of these considerations, the Syrian strike has escalated tensions between Russia and the U.S. It’s worth remembering Trump said during the campaign he would partner with Russia to fight Islamic terrorism — an idea that is less viable now after the missile attack.
Trump promised to no longer to get America into messy entanglements in the Middle East that did little to stanch the spread of radical Islam. The missile attack seemed to abandon that promise.
One development of Thursday’s action is the creation of a clear division between two types of Trump supporters. The ones upset with Trump’s strike want the president to actually push a nationalist agenda. The ones who full-heartedly supported it don’t seem care too much for the nationalist agenda and appear to be only attracted to Trump’s personality.
This division could arise again over other times where Trump goes against his populist-nationalist platform, such as on immigration. The Trumpists would be furious if the president considered amnesty, while the the personality cultists would cheer on The Donald’s brilliant move.
Throughout the campaign, Trump said he had inspired a movement, which is true. But in order for a political movement to lead to change and be sustainable, it has to be more than a personality cult.
Trump should remember that America First means something and isn’t an empty slogan for him to drape whatever policy he chooses to embark on.
If he can’t live up to it, he might as well drop it and embrace the George W. Bush doctrine he railed against during the primary.