President Trump has taken calibrated but prompt action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, prompting the question as to why, when the situation on the ground was far less challenging, President Barack Obama could not have acted similarly and thereby forestalled much of the death and destruction that followed. We will never know whether swift military action early in the Syrian war (as many in Obama’s Cabinet, including Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates advised) would have helped to dislodge Assad from power, prevented Russia from establishing a foothold in Syria, spared hundreds of thousands of lives and precluded the outpouring of millions of refugees that strained neighbors’ and European economic and political systems to the breaking point. What we do know is that Trump ironically has the opportunity to rebuff a policy of retrenchment, amorality and willful blindness (call it, say, “America First”) and reestablish U.S. leadership in the world.
Answers to a host of questions will set the course of his presidency and the international scene for the foreseeable future:
- Does Trump’s military action and Russia’s infuriating reaction (denying chemical weapons use, standing by Assad) eradicate Trump’s affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his vision of some sort of grand bargain wherein the great powers would carve out spheres of influence?
- Does this spell the death knell of an undefined and misguided “America First” policy and discredit its architects (e.g. Stephen K. Bannon, Stephen Miller)?
- Will Trump recognize the political benefits of presidential behavior and finally act like a grown-up (e.g. no bizarre tweets, conspiracy theories, outrageous attacks on the press)?
- Will his action change other nations’ perception of the United States, making it possible to rebuild alliances and intimidate opponents?
- Will our action in Syria give North Korea and Iran second thoughts about their missile programs and international behavior?
- Will this be a single, symbolic effort, or the first step in establishing a coherent approach to Syria and the Middle East more generally?
- Will newly hawkish Democrats and Republican partisans (who flirted with neo-isolationism because that was Trump’s view) support more aggressive international action? Can bipartisanship return in foreign policy?
- Will the successful deployment of military power loosen up the purse strings, enhancing military hawks’ arguments for more spending to rebuild our forces?
- Will recognition of the complexity and multiplicity of challenges in the Middle East help preserve funding for foreign aid and diplomatic functions?
- Will Trump’s newly awakened conscience cause him to reconsider a policy of refusing entry of Syrian refugees, a stance entirely at odds with his expressed concern for the plight of innocents?
- Will Secretary of State Rex Tillerson step up to the plate, taking seriously his responsibility to be the face of U.S. diplomacy and refraining from issuing confusing signals (as he did when he declared that it was up to the Syrian people to decide Assad’s fate, a statement that arguably encouraged Assad’s chemical attack)? If not, will Trump replace Tillerson with a more able and experienced figure?
On Day 77 of his presidency, Trump’s decision to strike Syria, whether he understood it or not, provided him with the rare opportunity to reset his presidency. He has the chance to bring to a close a horrendously unsuccessful start to his presidency marked by scandal, missteps and a stunning loss of confidence among allies and the American people. The question is whether he has the will, discipline and insight to make a sharp about-face. Stay tuned.