Almost exactly a year ago, President Trump was in basically the same situation on Syria that he is in today: deciding whether to override his noninterventionist tendencies and respond militarily to a deadly chemical weapon attack there that killed dozens of people.
Trump ended up authorizing an attack on a Syrian military airfield, and it quickly became one of his most popular foreign policy decisions to date, among both mainstream Republican lawmakers and Americans. Two-thirds of Americans approved, including nearly 90 percent of Republicans and a noteworthy 48 percent of Democrats, according to an April 2017 Fox News poll.
For a president who appears to thrive on approval from others, the public feedback Trump got last time from his ultimate decision to strike Syria is something he is almost certainly considering now as he weighs what to do.
Trump wasn’t always so certain about what to do. After the first chemical strike in Syria during his administration, we got a near-perfect test case of how harsh the blowback for the president will be within his own party if he decides not to respond.
When the 2017 chemical attack first happened, Trump issued a wishy-washy statement that blamed President Barack Obama for it but didn’t offer any retaliatory response. He got checked hard by hawkish Republican lawmakers for that. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused Trump’s administration of giving Syria’s president the green light to launch a chemical attack, noting that Trump’s secretary of state had suggested days earlier that the administration might let Syria’s president stay in power.
What Rubio said then parallels serious accusations Trump is now facing from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who suggested that Trump may be to blame for the second gas attack by telegraphing days earlier that he wanted out of the country.
Days after being on the receiving end of Republican criticism last year, Trump seemed like a totally different president when he finally decided to launch missile strikes. Mainstream Republicans in Congress responded to Trump’s 180 with one of their own, cheering the president in a way they hadn’t really ever before.
“Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syria and took action,” McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a joint statement.
Not everyone in Trump’s orbit was on board. Trump Internet (think fringe bloggers, conservative pundits and the alt-right world that arguably helped elevate Trump) hated it. #SyriaHoax they called it. This was akin to regime change and nation-building — everything they hated about the last administration’s foreign policy.
A number of Democrats and interventionist Republicans in Congress also demanded that Trump come to them first before launching such an attack. (Constitutional experts mostly agree that the president has the authority for a one-off attack. Plus, for all its talk, Congress has done its best to avoid making tough decisions on Syria, largely abdicating its responsibility to declare war.)
The appropriate role for America in Syria’s seven-year conflict has been an issue of such an intractable debate for so long in Washington that tensions are extremely high. Arguably one of the biggest foreign policy slip-ups of Obama’s presidency was when he threatened military intervention over a chemical attack in Syria by drawing a “red line,” then failed to follow through.
When you consider that the American debate on Syria also folds in complicated geopolitical rivalries — including between the United States and Russia — and emotional images of children and babies struggling to breathe, you have the makings of a political pressure cooker.
It’s one that Trump found himself in last year, and to some degree is in again today. It probably doesn’t go unnoticed by the president that, for the most part, deciding to launch missiles in Syria last time got him out of that pressure cooker and won him broad support.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.