Home/Rod Dreher/Trump Flip-Flops On Non-Intervention

Trump Flip-Flops On Non-Intervention

With Steve Bannon off the NSC, can we expect a more hawkish Trump, especially on Syria? (Gage Skidmore/Shutterstock)

Hello everyone, I’m sorry I’ve been away from the keys most of the day. I’ve been in Boulder, a beautiful city filled with good restaurants and nice people — and high altitude, and a bone-dry climate. My advice to you, if you want to avoid dizziness ‘n stuff: hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

So, back in the room after giving a talk at CU tonight — thanks for coming, friends — I see that the US is thinking about entering the Syrian war.  Excerpt:

President Trump warned on Wednesday that he would not tolerate the “heinous” chemical weapons attack in Syria, opening the door to a greater American role in protecting the population in a vicious civil war that he has always said the United States should avoid.

The president declined to offer any details about potential action. But he said his horror at the images of “innocent children, innocent babies” choked by poison gas in a rebel-held area of Syria had caused him to reassess his approach. Only days after the White House declared it would be “silly” to persist in trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Trump said, “My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

“It crossed a lot of lines for me,” the president declared at a news conference in the Rose Garden, referring to the “red line” that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had drawn before a 2013 poison-gas attack by Mr. Assad’s forces. Mr. Obama’s failure to strike Syria after that, Mr. Trump claimed, sowed the conditions for this new assault. The estimated death toll was reported to have exceeded 100.


Nothing, it seems, affects Mr. Trump’s judgments as much as what he sees on television. On Wednesday, he said the images of death inside Syria affected him, presumably in ways they did not under similar circumstances four years ago. “I will tell you that attack on children had a big, big impact on me,” he said. “That was a horrible, horrible thing.”

Anybody with a heart has to understand this feeling. But it is extremely dangerous to go to war because of what we have seen on television. Few if any Americans arguing for US restraint in Syria does so because they are indifferent to the horrific suffering of the Syrian people. They argue for it because a) it is next to impossible to know which of the bad-guy factions (there are no good guys) we should support, and b) because we have demonstrated at massive cost in human life, money, materiel, and regional stability the folly of going to war based on our strong emotions.

My colleague Daniel Larison wrote earlier today:

Pretending that “action” in Syria isn’t war is an attempt to demand that the government initiate hostilities against another state without owning up to the implications of what that means. Even if the purpose of the action were simply punitive and intended to make their government “pay a price,” the U.S. will not be in control of how the other parties to the conflict respond to that action. That risks sparking a wider conflagration that could prove very costly for us and the entire region, and doing it just for the sake of punishing the Syrian government is not a good enough reason to take such a huge gamble.

We also know that once so-called “limited” interventions begin they often do not stay “limited.” The war on ISIS began initially as a defensive response to a threat inside Iraq, but has since expanded into Syria and beyond. Once the U.S. makes the mistake of attacking the Syrian government, the clamor to “finish the job” will grow louder. And there are always unintended consequences in war, some of which none of us will have expected at the beginning, so it is possible that there are even greater dangers from taking such action that we don’t yet appreciate.

Why have we not learned this with regard to the Middle East?! It’s enough to make one despair. This is exactly what some of us less inclined to intervening militarily overseas feared about Trump: that his non-interventionist instincts were not grounded in anything, and could not be trusted. Today’s statement by Trump validates that concern. Remember what he pledged in the week after his election?:

President-elect Donald Trump laid out a U.S. military policy on Tuesday that would avoid interventions in foreign conflicts and instead focus heavily on defeating the Islamic State militancy.

In the latest stop on a “thank you” tour of states critical to his Nov. 8 election win, Trump introduced his choice for defense secretary, General James Mattis, to a large crowd in this city near the Fort Bragg military base, which has deployed soldiers to 90 countries around the world.

“We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” Trump said. “Instead, our focus must be on defeating terrorism and destroying ISIS, and we will.”

Trump’s rhetoric was similar to what he said during the election campaign when he railed against the war in Iraq.

In Fayetteville, he vowed a strong rebuilding of the U.S. military, which he suggested has been stretched too thin. Instead of investing in wars, he said, he would spend money to build up America’s aging roads, bridges and airports.

I don’t know to what extent this sentiment came from Stephen Bannon. To be perfectly clear, Bannon, as a political adviser, had no business sitting on the NSC. That said, I wonder if he was the only non-interventionist voice in the Trump inner circle. I don’t know that he counted himself a non-interventionist, per se, but read these remarks Bannon made to a Vatican conference in 2014. They don’t have much to do with foreign policy, but his saying that we have to focus more tightly on the long-term battle with radical Islam — it’s reasonable to conclude from that that Bannon would be hostile to the idea of US military intervention to punish the anti-ISIS Assad government. This, because it undermines the fight against radical Islam, which Bannon pretty clearly sees as a long-term, civilizational struggle.

Again, this is purely speculation on my part, and I welcome any insights readers may have into this situation. I was encouraged to see this today from Sen. Rand Paul:

Does Donald Trump have anybody around him now in the White House making this argument? Remember when Assad’s use of chemical weapons spurred President Obama to try to talk the nation and Congress into an act of war against Syria? This happened:

So when the president stepped into the sunny Rose Garden that Saturday morning, he announced that he had made two decisions: first, that the U.S. should act against Syria, and second, that he would seek explicit authorization from Congress to do so. With that, the administration set out on a different campaign than the military one we had been preparing for: to convince the American people that intervening in Syria was in the country’s interest.

What transpired over the next month was one of the most controversial and revealing episodes in eight years of Obama’s foreign policy. Despite the administration’s strong advocacy and support from a small minority of hawkish politicians, Congress and the American people proved strongly opposed to the use of force.

Do Congress and the American people remember this? Are they prepared to be consistent now that the president is a Republican named Trump? This news from last week out of the Administration is deeply troubling:

Even as the U.S. military takes on a greater role in the warfare in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration has stopped disclosing significant information about the size and nature of the U.S. commitment, including the number of U.S. troops deployed in either country.

How are the American people supposed to be aware of the Administration’s troop buildup? Who benefits? Do you trust this Commander-in-Chief to make wise decisions about when, how, and whether to go to war?

This is war we’re talking about, you know. We had no business going in there in 2003, and we cannot seem to learn our lesson.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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