‘I think he just became the President of the United States,’ said Fareed Zakaria when asked to comment on Donald Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian airbase. This view, in one form or another repeated by many other pundits, is unfortunately gravely mistaken.
Launching missiles on Syria was, according to Zakaria, a decision any other, more ‘conventional’ occupant of the White House, including Hillary Clinton, would have taken as well. It was also a sign that Mr Trump has finally realised the complexity of the job he undertook.
‘Candidate Trump had said he would never get involved in the Syrian war. […] He seemed unconcerned with global norms. President Trump recognised that the president of the United States does have to act to enforce international norms, does have to have this broader moral and political purpose. […] For the first time he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world. It was the kind of rhetoric we’ve come to expect from American presidents since Harry Truman.’
It is undoubtedly true that Trump has changed his rhetoric immediately after the strike. Yet, all the actions that followed the bombing and even those which preceded it belie the interpretation provided by Zakaria .
First of all, there is no evidence that this particular decision resulted from a significant change in the president’s view on the United States’ role in the world. Media reports released right after the attack said Trump was influenced to take action by horrible images broadcasted from Syria and by his daughter, Ivanka. Interestingly, when the president was later interviewed on the subject he said he authorised the strike while having a desert – ‘the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen’ – with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Then he mistakenly told the FoxNews journalist the missiles hit Iraq, not Syria. This hardly sounds like a message coming from a man who just realised the gravity of the role he was given.
Secondly, it’s equally hard to believe Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapon shook president Trump to the core. Although it was a barbarous act which took the lives of almost 90 civilians, including children, it was not even nearly as bloody as the previous attacks in 2013 which claimed the lives of around 1300 Syrians. Yet at that time Trump urged President Obama not to take any action. One may claim – as does Zakaria – that becoming the ‘leader of the free world’ changed Trump’s perspective. In this case, however, we need to ask why only recently Mr Trump claimed the US should side with Assad and the Russian military in their joint fight against ISIS.
Thirdly, the president’s other foreign policy actions look more like symptoms of a decision frenzy than tokens of a new grand, geopolitical strategy. Rex Tillerson’s difficult visit to Moscow, the attack on a Taliban base in Afghanistan with the most powerful non-nuclear bomb available, threats of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, and finally the not so subtle hints the US may pull the plug on the Iranian nuclear deal, cannot convince anybody that the president has come to grips with the complicated geopolitical reality he faces.
It is much more probable that just before Mr. Trump’s 100th day in office, the new administration beleaguered by crises has been trying desperately to divert public attention from its failures. Is it a far-fetched conclusion? A few years ago the same Donald Trump said Barack Obama might use the conflict in Syria to boost his approval rating. ‘Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin – watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate,’ he tweeted in October 2012. Thus ‘a president who has told us he believes military intervention happens when “poll numbers are in tailspin”’ ordered a military intervention just when his approval ratings are hitting the new lows, wrote Anne Applebaum in her column for the Washington Post.
But still, is it not a significant change from previous, more isolationist promises the candidate Trump made? Milo Yiannopoulos, one of the leaders of the so-called alt-right movement, which supports Trump commented on the Syrian attack by saying that ‘there comes a day in every child’s life when his Daddy bitterly disappoints him.’ Combined with the president’s decision to marginalise Steve Bannon – another icon of the alt-right movement – by removing him from the National Security Council, this might suggest a genuine change of political forces within the administration.
Yet again, one should not forget this is not the first time Trump broke a significant promise given to his most radical electorate. Those undelivered include prosecuting Hillary Clinton, introducing a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’, or repealing Obamacare. It would not be unfair to say that breaking promises and coming up with new ones has over the years become one of Mr Trump’s trademarks. The fact that this time he announced something some pundits can agree with should not lead us into believing in a genuine change of Mr Trump’s heart.
There’s a saying in Poland, that even a broken clock can tell you the right time twice a day. I believe that is how we should interpret President Trump’s action in Syria and all the recent developments in American foreign policy.
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