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Trump Flip-Flops On Non-Intervention

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.  [1] Excerpt:

President Trump warned on Wednesday that he would not tolerate the “heinous” chemical weapons attack in Syria [2], 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 [3] 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: [4]

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?: [5]

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. [6] 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 [9]:

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: [10]

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.

78 Comments (Open | Close)

78 Comments To "Trump Flip-Flops On Non-Intervention"

#1 Comment By VikingLS On April 6, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

“Hope all you 45 voters are happy.”

Putting us in Syria wouldn’t even have been a change in stated policy for Clinton. He’s talking about doing now what she said she’d do all along.

Do you think we forgot that or did you forget it?

#2 Comment By kijunshi On April 6, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

If we truly wanted to help the victims of attacks in Syria, we would… accept more refugees on our soil. Hmm. The very concept that we could affect this mess for the better by some active military intervention is not actually possible–others have explained it better above.

This whole business, I’m afraid, is only happening because the military brass needs to burn up some money to justify all those subsidies. God save our troops.

The one, slim hope that I had for Trump being an improvement over Clinton was in the possibility that he might practice a more isolationist foreign military policy than her. So much for that! On we march, over the cliff, into the quagmire! In so many ways our country really is dedicated to effing it up as hard as possible, isn’t it?

#3 Comment By VikingLS On April 6, 2017 @ 3:55 pm


“Regardless of what you think US policy in Syria should be–those of you alleging that the recent gas attacks are either a) a fabrication, b) an accident, or c) a false flag operation, are embarrassing yourselves. Occam’s razor.”

Scotty, laying aside the fact that actually it wasn’t established that Assad has done it before, that doesn’t mean that it makes sense for him to do it now.

Occam’s razor also would have meant the Gulf of Tonkin incident wasn’t a false flag.

Sorry but your testing the new sheriff theory sounds exactly like every time Kristol or Krauthammer claimed some international incident was the result of the perception of American weakness under Obama.

That should give you pause, but it won’t. You’re just too partisan and you will never change.

#4 Comment By VikingLS On April 6, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

“Given growing protest against his regime, the conspiracy theory du jour is that Putin will use the attacks as an excuse for further crackdowns. I wouldn’t put it past him.”

It would have made more sense for them to have chosen a suspect that was in one of the opposition groups rather than a guy from Kyrgyzstan.

FWIW I am also puzzled why Assad would do this, and suspect you are right that Trump’s pivot on this is Kushner’s influence.

#5 Comment By John Gruskos On April 6, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

“Putin’s hawkishness just got his people killed.”

No, his refusal to control immigration got his people killed.

#6 Comment By ScottA On April 6, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

I remember watching a few years back a documentary on public television about an Army hospital in Iraq that showed our wounded soldiers being brought in, but they also showed local parents bringing in screaming children with horrible burns all over their bodies that were hit in the combat.

This “collateral damage” doesn’t usually get much coverage in the US mainstream media, because it doesn’t support the narrative of the righteous and blessed “indispensable nation” undertaking righteous crusades to bring freedom and happiness to the heathens and saving them from themselves.

#7 Comment By Andrew On April 6, 2017 @ 5:32 pm

Count me as one of those who is skeptical of Assad’s involvement. I remember vividly the incubator babies of the first Iraq War. Anyone else remember? Not to mention obviously the build up to the second war.

Supposedly there was a recent mass showing of 1984 in movie theaters, as some sort of protest against Trump. But who is manipulating who here? “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.” The same ridiculous people who cheered the overthrowing of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are now pushing us to overthrow another regime? Have we learned nothing at all? I’m just stunned. And journalists who accuse Trump of fascism are now pushing us to “do something” about Syria.

Of course it’s a horrible tragedy that children were killed by chemical weapons. But a child killed by an American bomb is just as dead. What do people think is going to happen if we try to intervene?

And already I’ve heard Trump blamed for this attack, because Assad is supposedly reacting to his recent words. Really? Trump is to blame? But all the thousands that have died in the past few years, Obama had nothing to do with it? (Not that I blame Obama. I’m thankful the American people talked him and Congress out of war. But “the red line” was a terrible mistake.)

I really despair. I’m hoping Trump is just talking for strategic reasons but has no plans to intervene. We cannot solve every world crisis, and cannot intervene in every country’s civil war. It’s a tragic world, but for once can the US learn from history and decide that this isn’t our business? Sometimes the most humane thing to do is nothing.

#8 Comment By Noah172 On April 6, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

Sam M wrote:

The looming and permanent counterexamples are the Nazi concentration camps, where in retrospect non-intervention seen through the lens of “WWII was a just war” looks like appeasement.

It’s a hard thing to overcome. Perhaps impossible. WWII is our Holy Crusade. All the failed interventions since then, all the failed nation building, crumble like dust.

Politicians will risk being JFK or Johnson, but they won’t risk being Chamberlain

Which goes to show you whose influence overwhelms American mass media and higher education.

Feeling guilty about the Holocaust is suicide for white gentiles. It is not merely a nuisance, mere political correctness. If you don’t like alt-right talk of #WhiteGenocide, how about #WhiteSuicide? Only a suicidal race would threaten the existence of its civilization with messianic crusades jihads to impose its “values” on unwilling and retrograde peoples, creating boomerang “refugee” floods from the same into the moralistic invaders’ homelands.

#9 Comment By VikingLS On April 6, 2017 @ 6:42 pm

“None of this is proof that Assad did it, but the whole “to me it looks irrational so it must have been a false flag” chain of reasoning is faulty.”

Good thing nobody is saying it “must” be a false flag, people are saying it could be.

#10 Comment By Noah172 On April 6, 2017 @ 6:44 pm

KD wrote:

I think Kushner aligns more with perceiving the American national interest in line with Israel than Bannon does.

Exactly. Among other things, the Trump-Russia fake news hysteria is intended to deflect any scrutiny of Israel’s (and to a lesser degree Saudi’s) influence on our government — influence which contributed mightily to our Iraq debacle, Obama’s aborted push for war in Syria, and now Trump’s maybe-maybe-not Syrian intervention.

An America at peace with Russia would be an America less inclined to shuck and jive (and bleed and die) for Israel.

#11 Comment By VikingLS On April 6, 2017 @ 6:55 pm

Honestly it’s really past the point where you should be neutral about this, or qualifying your words with “regardless what you think US policy should be in Syria”. Think of what you think that policy should be, and act accordingly, including your words.

Tempting as it might be to adopt the argument that Thomas Friedman, Scotty, and probably others, to push the argument that Assad did it just to test Trump’s resolve, that is waving a red cape in front of a bull. It doesn’t matter that the president of the United States should act like that, Trump is the president, and it’s looking like he does. That’s giving an incentive to go to war. (And AGAIN it doesn’t matter that you don’t think this is how things SHOULD be)

On the other hand, if you push the argument that, tragic as the attack was, it should not be an excuse for Trump to cynically drag us into another Middle Eastern war, just to distract us from his domestic failures. That’s a disincentive and one that can be leveraged against other people eager to fight this war, particularly ones like McCain, who don’t even like Trump.

#12 Comment By Eric Mader On April 6, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I do believe one has to take them seriously if there is 1) any evidence, and 2) the claims being made do not make sense in terms of explaining motivations. In this case, the Assad regime, or any government run by rational actors, would have to be insane to perpetrate a chemical weapons attack.

As a friend of mine puts it:

“Wake up people, this is yet another false-flag event designed to attain the establishment’s long-held dream of Syrian regime-change, just like the 2013 gas attacks that even the UN said were done by US-backed rebels including Al Nusra and ISIS, using US-created chemical weapons. And by the way, those were done the very day that the international community arrived to investigate previous attacks, by Assad’s invitation, go figure.

“Similarly, here we have the US recently making a 180-degree turn, saying we are no longer interested in regime-change and we only want to fight ISIS. And then Assad somehow once again decides to use chemical attacks on his own people immediately afterward? How stupid would someone have to be to believe such a lie?”

One of Trump’s advantages over Hillary was his blanket rejection the regime-change policy vis à vis the Middle East. Now we might see him prodded into taking up that repeatedly failed policy, perhaps in part because, if he goes after Assad, it will allow him to distance himself from the “Russia, Russia, Russia” mantra coming from the Dem camp and their media mouthpieces.

Trump’s “I’ve changed my mind on Syria” is for me the most depressing bit of news to come since he entered the Oval Office. It may herald another world-historical misstep on our part, and if it’s not just soundbites, it demonstrates a deep lack of principle or rational forethought in the president. (Not that these latter would be surprising, but it’s always sobering to have one’s deepest fears proven right.)

#13 Comment By Adamant On April 6, 2017 @ 9:35 pm

And the deed is done:


Anyone who thought, or thinks that Trump was ideologically or tempermentally resistant to military intervention in MENA is a fool, and has advertised their willingness to believe in pretty much anything without a shred of evidence.

#14 Comment By Anne On April 6, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

Well, here’s an earth-shattering development: I agree with Donald Trump. He’s right: Asaad went too far. And that was four years ago. He has now pushed “too far” officially beyond the pale.

Realpolitik and all the concern-talk about there being too many bad guys in Syria to discriminate against one WMD-wielding tyrant aside, something has to be done to make sure those weapons are decommissioned for good. What and how are the only question. This is the world’s problem, not just Syria’s…and obviously not just ours. But we have the power to disarm the tyrant, as do a few other nations, including Putin’s Russia. Unfortunately, Russia’s been allied with Asaad, and last heard, was even claiming no chemicals had been used.

The fact that Trump now says he’s changed his mind about Asaad seems to indicate he’s finally reading his intel briefings instead of depending on conspiracy theorists at Breitbart or Fox News, which is good. Good too is the news that Bannon, as well as Flynn, is off the National Security Council once and for all. But God only knows what’s going on here; the sudden flip flops by people who’ve been crazy wrong in the past can’t be without risk. To expect the kind of wisdom required from a total amateur seems crazy in itself, but that just happens to be the position we’re in.

Those comparing this to Iraq in 2002 just don’t get it. When we invaded Iraq it was supposedly to keep Hussein from arming terrorists who would use WMD against us, even though 1. Secularist Hussein had no ties to (or interest in) Islamic terrorists and 2. all inspectors on the ground reported that all the WMDs in Hussein’s arsensal had been destroyed, which meant he had no WMDs to give.

Asaad does have WMD, and this is at least the second time he’s used them. If the world lets that pass, he’ll do it again, and every bad guy in power who can get his hands on WMD (hello, Kim. Jong-un) will feel more emboldened to do the same for whatever purpose he may have (threatening the US itself?). When Obama wanted to act against Asaad when he used them in 2013, he asked for authorization from Congress and the Republicans said no. Trump agreed with that assessment then. But he wasn’t President then. He didn’t see the photos or read the intel a President sees, he didn’t have that kind of responsibility, and he let the Breitbart ideologues tell him what to think. Apparently that’s all changed now.

None of this means Trump will do the right thing. Obviously I don’t have a lot of faith in his good judgment. But deciding Asaad had gone too far was a step in the right direction. I give him that. Now, we’ll see.

#15 Comment By l’autre J On April 6, 2017 @ 10:08 pm

Trump has tonight put all of you moral cowards to shame.

#16 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 6, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

When I see the above photo of Bannon out of the corner of my eye, I think it is Hillary Clinton until I take a closer, more direct look.

#17 Comment By ScottA On April 6, 2017 @ 11:07 pm

Well Mr. Dreher, it looks like you had Mr. Trump’s psyche and personality figured out all along, now that he has impetuously attacked Syria. Given that the Russians are there we had all better start doing a lot of praying that he doesn’t start world war 3. God help us.

#18 Comment By peanut On April 7, 2017 @ 12:02 am


“Much like the racists who allegedly dominate this board, these people who called Trump a peace candidate exist only in your mind.”

“Which goes to show you whose influence overwhelms American mass media and higher education.

Feeling guilty about the Holocaust is suicide for white gentiles.”

How could anyone get the impression that there might be any racism going on in this establishment?

#19 Comment By Anne On April 7, 2017 @ 3:45 am

So now we know what Trump might do: A unilateral air strike. Hmmm. Something had to be done, and an air strike is something, but who’s going to get rid of whatever’s actually left of Assad’s WMD arsenal? All of that was supposed to have been destroyed in 2014, but clearly it wasn’t. Asaad’s enemies always said sarin was still there, although Russia claimed otherwise (and apparently still does). Before this week, Trump seemed to believe Putin over everybody else, including his own intel services. Could this sarin attack mean Trump has done a 180-degree flip on Putin as well as Asaad?

#20 Comment By VikingLS On April 7, 2017 @ 8:43 am

“How could anyone get the impression that there might be any racism going on in this establishment?”

Fair enough, you found ONE. Now find us the people who called Trump a peace candidate.

#21 Comment By Sands On April 7, 2017 @ 8:44 am

“Well, here’s an earth-shattering development: I agree with Donald Trump. He’s right: Asaad went too far. And that was four years ago. He has now pushed “too far” officially beyond the pale.”

I think all decent people would readily admit that Assad is one sorry SOB, but please explain why being killed with gas is worse than being killed by bombs or bullets. Assad has been using barrel bombs throughout the course of the war without any care whatsoever about civilian casualties. I don’t see how our intervention further intervention would help anyone. This move by Trump is only going to prolong this wretched war.

Let’s put emotions aside and be rational here.

#22 Comment By Sands On April 7, 2017 @ 9:05 am

“How could anyone get the impression that there might be any racism going on in this establishment?”

So what? It certainly is not the prevailing thought around here, and it certainly isn’t promoted by Rod (remember Deep South Populist?).

Grow up, you’re out in the real world now.

#23 Comment By Noah172 On April 7, 2017 @ 11:46 am

peanut and VikingLS:

Sam M, not I, noted that guilty feelings over the Holocaust was causing political leaders to favor reckless, catastrophic interventions, even those damaging to themselves politically (his allusion to Vietnam). I elaborated on his remark.

I note that neither of you dispute what Sam M and then I (again, that sequence) wrote. Isn’t it bad to use guilt over the events of the 1930s and 40s to justify foolhardy military actions which will cause death and destruction more than seven decades later?

#24 Comment By Anne On April 7, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

I’m somewhat thrown by those shocked that Trump is pro-military. Which Trump have you been watching? I’ve been following the orange-skinned one who’s gone as far as to imply we might invade Mexico if it doesn’t foot the bill for his billion-dollar border wall (!). Besides badmouthing Obama’s “weakness” for not taking tougher stands almost everywhere in the world, praising Putin for being such a tough guy, and talking about how he’d sink the Iranian navy if their sailors had the nerve to sneer at our boats under his reign, he had the most war-mongering, metal-chewing generals who ever got in trouble for being mean promoting him during the campaign. Pick a clue there. Sheesh.

The news this week wasn’t that Donald Trump got it into his head to bomb something in the Middle East, but that he said he’d changed his mind about Asaad…because he’d gassed babies.

#25 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 7, 2017 @ 2:50 pm

Isn’t it bad to use guilt over the events of the 1930s and 40s to justify foolhardy military actions which will cause death and destruction more than seven decades later?

Yes, Noah, it is. We’ve gotten entangled in a lot of wars because political leaders and generals are always ready to fight the last war. When it comes to Vietnam, I recall more about Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia than I do about the Churban Europa being the reason we must get into Vietnam. Likewise, the peace movements of the late 1930’s were still opposing the “imperialist war” of 1914, without recognizing that Hitler and Mussolini were very different characters.

#26 Comment By JonF On April 9, 2017 @ 7:37 am

Re: No, his [Putin’s] refusal to control immigration got his people killed.

Russia’s internal terrorism problems are not due to immigration, but to the imperialism of long dead tsars. The Chehens for example did not immigrate to Russia en masse; their ancestors were dragooned into the Russian Empire.

#27 Comment By Noah172 On April 9, 2017 @ 12:45 pm


The St. Petersburg attacker was a Kyrgyz immigrant. That’s what the other commenter meant.

As for Chechen terrorists, they get help from Arab allies who travel to Russia (e.g., Arabs were involved in the planning and execution of the infamous Beslan school massacre of 2004).

#28 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 9, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

Noah, you are stretching it… Kyrgystan was a full fledged SSR, rather than a constituent republic within the RSFSR, but it too was a conquest of the Czar’s, not an enclave of aggressive immigrants. Now the Mongols… but that’s a different story. And whatever Arabs have been involved are not immigrants, they are more akin to the German saboteurs landed by a submarine in 1942 in New Jersey.