It may be too early to tell for sure, but Donald Trump is looking more and more like a phony. He’s also looking like a weakling. And a political ingrate. All this is coming into stark relief with accelerating events involving Syria. The United States launched dozens of missiles against Syrian military installations to retaliate for the chemical attack on rebel-held territory. Thus did Trump demonstrate that, to the extent that his foreign policy differs from that of his predecessor, it is more aggressive and adventuresome than Obama’s. That’s the opposite of how he campaigned.
So let’s start with the crucial civic adhesive of political gratitude. This is the virtue that impels politicians to give special consideration to the people who put them in office. That can generate anger and frustration on the part of people on the other side of the major issues in play, but those people have to accept that they were on the losing side. The winning side sets the agenda, based on the political conversation of the last campaign. That’s how democratic politics works.
Thinking back to the political conversation of the last campaign, we recall that Trump attacked the Iraq War as a mindless foreign adventure with bitter and ongoing consequences, including ongoing Mideast chaos. He said he certainly wouldn’t make the same mistake in Syria and that joining the struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would put the United States on the side of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in the region. He said that, if Assad were deposed, the country likely would fall to unsavory elements that hate the West—in other words, some of our worst enemies. He touted his oft-expressed desire to develop better relations with Russia, an Assad ally, and said he would work with Russia toward an end to the horrendous Syrian bloodshed.
Out in the country, many Americans interpreted that campaign rhetoric as signifying that this was one politician who would buck the conventional wisdom of the elites, that he would resist the call to flex American muscle wherever tragedy stalked the globe. We know that most Americans agreed with Trump’s harsh judgment on George W. Bush’s Iraq War, though some may have been uncomfortable with the billionaire’s characteristic allegation that our national leaders actually lied to the American people in taking America to war (as opposed to having been tragically mistaken about whether Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was consorting with anti-Western terrorist organizations).
So the question must be asked: What does Trump owe to his constituency, the people who put him in office? Does he owe them a resolve to avoid getting enmeshed in yet another Mideast war, even in the wake of the horrendous chemical weapons attack in Syria? Does he owe them actual proof that Assad was in fact the perpetrator?
More broadly, does he owe the American people an explanation of just what he intends to accomplish with this military action, what its parameters are going to be, what’s its limitations might be? Does he owe Congress any respect as the branch of government charged with the responsibility to declare war?
Trump administration officials waxed bellicose on the matter immediately, before there could have been any serious investigation of what actually happened in Syria. Assad, it was assumed instantly, was the culprit. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Assad deserved “no role” in governing his country. Thus is America seemingly set to embark on yet another adventure in regime change, a policy that reaped endless regional havoc when it was done in Iraq and Libya. Then Trump weighed in, telling reporters on Air Force One that “what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity, and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.”
It seems our new president is wrapping himself in Wilsonian garb, sending American forces out into far-flung precincts of the globe in behalf of humanitarian sentiments.
Of course the usual “senior American official,” one of the guys who always seem to find their way to the New York Times in such circumstances, told the paper that U.S. intelligence had established “with high confidence” that Assad was behind the atrocity. But we’ve seen this movie before. The intelligence community doesn’t enjoy a high level of credibility these days, not to mention some senior American official speaking anonymously on its behalf.
There are other possibilities, including a hit on a rebel storage facility containing chemical weapons or even an al-Qaeda action designed to unleash precisely the Western outrage directed at Assad that has materialized. As investigative journalist Robert Parry has asked, since Assad has gained a decisive upper hand in the civil war, why would he risk stirring up a Western military response with such an action?
Maybe he would. Perhaps he possesses that level of stupidity to match his brutality. But, if he did, the American people deserve to know the facts, solemnly and exactingly given, on what actually happened and what the overall military plan is.
Getting back to the Trump constituency, this isn’t what these people came to expect from him based on his campaign rhetoric and his attacks on the country’s foreign-policy aggressiveness of the past two decades. Those are the people who put him in the White House, and he owes them at least a recognition of that. He owes them a measure of political gratitude.
And this is where his weakness comes in. His campaign convictions seem to be devoid of the courage required to uphold them. In the campaign he talked big. He had the swagger down nicely. He conveyed the image of a man who wouldn’t be swayed by conventional vogues of thought or the opprobrium of elites. He would go his own way because that’s the only way he could drain the Washington swamp, craft new political dialectics, create a new governing coalition, reduce the level of American foreign-policy adventurism.
But that takes real guts. It’s psychologically difficult to venture into entirely new political territory, where no one has gone before. Talking about it is easy; actually doing it requires a fortitude beyond the capacity of any political weakling.
We are now reading that the conventional thinkers and the establishment denizens of the Trump administration are decimating the administration people who were with him during his campaign, when he devastated the conventional thinkers and establishment denizens who now are taking over his administration. In domestic policy, perhaps the stakes aren’t so high; the biggest loser is likely to be Trump himself. But in foreign policy the stakes are immense, and the loser could be the entire country.
How does one account for these signs that Trump’s governance is going to be significantly at variance with his campaign advocacy? It’s difficult to resist the suspicion that some of it has to do with a lack of conviction. He’s winging it—and has been since he descended that famous Trump Tower escalator in June 2015. And yet he talked as if he were a man of ironclad conviction, someone whose words presage his actions. In politics, when words and actions don’t mesh, we call that phoniness.
The Syrian drama has yet to play out completely, and so perhaps this episode won’t be quite the window on the Donald that it seems at these musings. But the signs don’t look favorable on this particular matter, as they also don’t on many others.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, DC, journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His next book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century , is due out from Simon & Schuster in September.