That President Trump completely reversed his entire ostensible foreign policy outlook comes as no surprise to those of us who argued from the first that he had no convictions on any topic, but merely had an instinct for his opponents’ vulnerabilities. The incoherence of his current posture is entirely of a piece with a more general incoherence that was manifest throughout the campaign, and for which further evidence emerges daily from the behavior of the administration.
That he could be easily coopted by an establishment consensus should similarly be no surprise. There was ample evidence, from the way he staffed his administration through to his legislative strategy (such as it has been) to prove that he had no particular intentions of implementing a serious break with prior Republican priorities, nor any idea of how to do so if he should have so intended.
Least of all should it be a surprise that President Trump cares even less than his predecessors for the norms and legal constraints on military action. Trump hasn’t the slightest legal warrant whatsoever in domestic or international law for his attack on Syria. In this he has extended the precedents set by Barack Obama (who prosecuted war well beyond the warrant approved by either Congress or the United Nations), George W. Bush (who made war with Congressional approval, but based on deceptive marketing, and who conducted that war in a manner that violated international and domestic law), and Bill Clinton (who made war without international warrant but with the clear and solid support of our NATO treaty allies). But this time there is barely a fig leaf of legality, and no public attempt whatever to justify the action as based on anything but Presidential whim.
No, the only surprise is that what motivated this new violence was the tender concern for children and for the treaty banning the use of chemical weapons. That I did not expect.
What have we yet to learn?
Mostly whether President Trump will prove to be easily led into an ever-expanding conflict with no purpose and no end-game — or whether he will prove to be easily intimidated into abandoning the fight as soon as it proves more difficult or unpopular than anticipated. Or — what I suspect is most likely — a combination of both, alternating between striking out blindly in anger and pulling out sulkily based on the news cycle of the week.
I’m sure Xi Jinping will have a grand old time either way.