The coordinated attack on Syria by U.S. and allied military forces illustrates the conflicting impulses behind President Trump’s foreign policy. He remains an “America First” isolationist who disdains a role as global policeman. But Trump is also a determined counter-puncher who can be moved to action by grisly pictures he sees on TV.
For the second time in just over a year, Trump ordered airstrikes on Syrian targets in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The evil and despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air,” Trump said Friday, describing a chemical attack on the Damascus suburb of Douma a week ago. “These are not the actions of a man; they are crimes of a monster instead.”
Just 10 days before launching the retaliatory strike, Trump had stressed his impatience to bring U.S. troops home from Syria, where they’ve been battling ISIS. Both the president and his military advisers took pains to say the attack on Assad’s chemical weapons facilities was not a prelude to a wider war.
“America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria,” Trump said. “As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home.”
Earlier this month, Trump hinted that day could come quickly.
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home,” Trump said during a White House news conference on April 3. He argued that the money the U.S. has spent since 2001 fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has been largely wasted.
“I want to start rebuilding our nation,” Trump said. “We will have, as of three months ago, $7 trillion in the Middle East over the last 17 years. We get nothing — nothing — out of it. Nothing.”
That echoed comments Trump made during the campaign when he argued that the U.S. had overextended itself militarily around the world.
“We are losing billions and billions of dollars,” Trump said during his first debate with Hillary Clinton. “We cannot be the policeman of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world where they’re not paying us what we need.”
Once again, though, Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons prompted the president to play cop on the beat, however reluctantly.
“It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that,” the president said Thursday during a meeting with politicians about agriculture and trade deals.
Unlike the attack a year ago, in which American forces unilaterally fired cruise missiles at Syria, this latest assault was carried out in cooperation with U.S. allies France and Britain.
“Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result,” Trump tweeted Saturday.
Although the president said the U.S. and its allies are prepared to sustain their campaign against Assad’s chemical weapons facilities if necessary, he suggested that military action is finished, for now.
“Mission Accomplished!” Trump also tweeted.
The president consulted frequently with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron in the days leading up to the attack. Coordination with those allies is one reason the strike took longer to organize than last year’s.
Trump also discussed the Syrian situation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
The presence of Turkish and Russian troops in Syria along with local forces and the remnants of ISIS adds to the complexity of the landscape.
“We’re trying to stop the murder of innocent people,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee this week. “On a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control.”
Trump has often spoken of his desire to build a stronger relationship with Russia, but Moscow’s support for Assad poses another impediment to that.
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace,” Trump said Friday night as he announced the airstrike. “Hopefully, someday we’ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran. But maybe not.”
Trump also stressed that his suspicion of U.S entanglements in the region has not changed since the campaign.
“No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East,” the president said. “We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place. The United States will be a partner and a friend, but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.”