President Donald Trump hasn’t even finished his first 100 days yet and his isolationist “America First” creed is already dead.
First, he ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to pound Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the strikes damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Bashar al-Assad’s air force in ten minutes.
In case you hoped or feared this might be a one-off before returning to business as usual, here’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday this week: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”
And if you hoped the United States was about to join Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in propping up the Assad regime because it’s “secular,” you’re out of luck. “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad,” Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley just said.
What a difference a week makes.
Donald Trump is hardly the first person to get the mother of all reality checks after transitioning from the campaign trail to the White House where he now gets advice and counsel from seasoned professionals rather than campaign managers, political sloganeers and sycophants. George W. Bush promised an end to nation-building abroad, then committed to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama promised to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay. It’s still open.
The president says he changed his mind about Syria because he saw gut-wrenching pictures of children murdered with chemical weapons on television. I don’t buy it, at least not entirely, and I’m not saying he’s lying. We’ve all seen these pictures before. The Assad regime’s latest chemical attack killed roughly 100, but it killed more than 1,400 in 2013 when citizen Trump warned Obama that terrible things would happen if he did anything about it.
The images on TV didn’t change; Trump’s responsibility changed. Before winning the election last November, he wasn’t the least bit responsible for anything that happened abroad. Now he is. It’s a burden few heads of state in the world have to bear. The president of Costa Rica can’t be held remotely responsible for what happens in the Middle East, but the leader of the most powerful country in the world certainly can be, at least to a point.
Pacifists, anti-imperialists and isolationists had their way in Syria during the Obama years. We stayed out of it, and the results are worse than the Iraq War—the metastasizing of ISIS, the serial murder of almost half a million and counting, the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and the manifestation of a Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah terrorist axis.
Smug isolationists ought to be just as chastened by events during the last decade as gung-ho interventionists.
Foreign policy is tragic and brutal. People die if you act and they die if you don’t. If you can’t handle it, don’t run for president. Because if you’re the president of the United States, you’ll have blood on your hands even if you never fire a shot.
Last September on the campaign trail, Trump said, “I’m not running to be President of the world. I’m running to be President of the United States.” That’s true on the face of it, and no one wants him to be president of the world, but his bombastic America First sloganeering either willfully or obtusely harked back to the noxious America First Committee in 1940 which temporarily convinced the United States to stand aside while Hitler devoured Europe. A lot of people, myself included, feared we might have to re-learn the lessons of the 1930s now that nearly everyone who witnessed that period as an adult is no longer with us, but perhaps we were wrong.
Millions of people breathed a sigh of relief when the president, after telling us what he had just done and why, said “God bless America, and the entire world.” But he lost the support of the paranoid right and the far-right. White nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe himself and his followers, says Trump’s reversal is a “total betrayal” and tweeted #StandWithAssad. Paul Joseph Watson at the Alex Jones’ ludicrous conspiracy site Info Wars tweeted, “I guess Trump wasn't ‘Putin's puppet’ after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet. I'm officially OFF the Trump train.” And here’s former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke: “I'm sure @HillaryClinton is cackling with her co-conspirators tonight. We are now fighting the war @realDonaldTrump was supposed to stop.”
You know who else is furious? The Russians, North Korea, Iran’s ayatollahs, and Hezbollah. The assholes of the world have united.
Meanwhile, Trump gained support for the first time from the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton proposed striking Assad’s airfields mere hours before the missiles began flying. Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Bill Nelson and even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signed on, though they want to be consulted before anything else serious happens.
We are all watching, in real time, the political education of Donald Trump and the political realignment that logically follows. One of the things he’s bound to learn is that the fulcrum of political power lies in the center of American politics, not on the fringes, that when he gains support from the moderate left at the expense of the far-right, his poll numbers go up instead of down. Over the past week, his RealClearPolitics job approval poll average blipped up from 39 percent to 41 percent.
The likelihood that he can be a successful president by catering strictly to his populist and far-right base while alienating everyone else is virtually zero. But if, during the course of his political education, he sees the value in saying thank you and goodbye to talk radio rage-a-holics and builds a coalition that includes the center-left and the center-right—not just on foreign policy but also on infrastructure, health care, and everything else—anything’s possible.