President Donald Trump campaigned as the anti-Bush/Cheney Republican, the leader who wouldn’t be the policeman to the world.
So Trump stepping up to face Bashar Assad, after Syrian tyrant’s chemical attack on civilians in his own country, rattled some people.
But the shift from a non-interventionist to firing Tomahawk missiles into the Syrian air base from which the chemical attack was launched shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
“I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way … I do change and I am flexible and I’m proud of that flexibility, and I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact,” Trump said the day before the strike during a Rose Garden press conference I attended. “That was a horrible, horrible thing and I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that. And I have that flexibility and it’s very, very possible, and I will tell you it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”
This comes back to that point that Trump is a businessman, who adapts to what he thinks works. In the corporate world, being an ideologue isn’t an option. Ideology and philosophy aren’t paramount in business. When it comes to making money, pragmatism is front and center.
During the 2016 primary season, many Republicans criticized Trump for his flexibility, or what they would consider a lack of principles. When it comes to foreign policy, Republican Sens. John McCain and Rand Paul have very little flexibility. There aren’t many places where McCain doesn’t want military intervention, while Paul seems never to think it’s a good idea.
Trump is neither a neocon nor a libertarian, who would apply the same ideological outlook to every international situation.
So, can business sense apply to foreign policy? Considering the chief diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is a former ExxonMobil CEO, we should hope so.
A business model would likely include looking at what works and what doesn’t. Trump, a critic of President George W. Bush and the Iraq war, noted during the Rose Garden press conference, “I would love to have never been in the Middle East.”
Some contend that as evil as Saddam Hussein was, leaving him in power would have continued a comparatively stable checks and balance among evil tyrants in the Middle East. Like most pining for good old days, that seems a bit of a skewed version of supposed stability in the Middle East before the Iraq war. Still, it’s safe to say the decision to invade Iraq was a monumental foreign policy blunder. On that same note, Libya is a failed state after the U.S., under the Obama administration, deposed Muammar Gaddafi.
President Barack Obama warned about the “red line” if Assad ever used chemical weapons. When Assad used them, Obama’s response was essentially, just kidding. Assad thought he could test the new president. Trump proved he’s not Obama.
In 2013, he warned Obama against hitting Syria.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your "powder" for another (and more important) day!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2013
But, during the Rose Garden press conference, he said Obama’s lack of action harmed the U.S. reputation.
“When he didn’t cross that line after making the threat, I think that set us back a long way, not only in Syria, but in many of the parts of the world, because it was a blank threat,” Trump said. “When you kill innocent children — innocent babies, little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines.”
Trump acted quickly, just two days after Assad’s chemical weapons attack. It’s not just America’s reputation in the world. There are domestic political considerations.
Trump sold himself as a man of action. Now he’s facing a very complex action. This is not a likely one-off. But, he can’t let U.S. involvement in a civil war turn into a quagmire that consumes his presidency, as happened to Bush. If deposing Assad is the eventual end game, he better have a plan as to who takes over in the short term—not assume democracy will just organically flourish.
Also, there is the Constitution. Paul and other lawmakers on both sides have said he should have sought congressional authorization. Trump made broad reference to international treaties and how stopping banned chemical weapons is in the national security interest of the United States. Obama opted to go it alone without Congress in Libya and there still isn’t a lot to show for it.
It’s difficult to apply a business model to the Middle East. This could be an opportunity for Trump not only to prove he really is a man of action, but to prove that while he’s “America First” on economics, he can use those businessman skills to build an international coalition to address a humanitarian crisis.
Fred Lucas is a columnist for Political Storm and the White House correspondent for The Daily Signal. He is the author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections (Stairway Press, 2016).