Donald Trump came into office promising he’d put “America First”. Screw everyone else, he declared. Gone was the era of U.S. umbrella protection for nations like Japan and Germany, who he likened to freeloaders benefiting from one-way alliance agreements at almost no cost–and at the expense of a beleaguered United States.
Yet underneath all the tough (and controversial) talk was a glimmer of hope for realism. The D.C. consensus on foreign policy is perhaps one of the firmest of any issue. Democrats and Republicans, alike, seem to be beholden to the liberal internationalist view, which is the belief that as the world’s policeman and a force for good, the U.S. must intervene in foreign conflicts even when it is not in the national interest.
Examples of this imprudent policy abound: Iraq, Libya, Egypt, etc. etc. etc. In every instance, U.S. involvement ended in failure, fed the narrative that America was out for regime change, and left the domestic and regional situation worse off. Perhaps most consequential is Syria, whose refugees have placed such a burden on the European Union that it now appears to be tearing apart at the seams (though, to be fair, it is but one of many factors of the rising anti-EU sentiment). It is the Syria that has become a entangled web of conflicts and interests involving the U.S. and its coalition partners, Russia, Turkey, the Assad regime, ISIS, anti-Assad rebels, the Kurds, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and any number of the surrounding Arab nations who have a stake in the outcome.
Yes, that Syria, whose brutal dictator used chemical weapons against his own people. As tragic, atrocious, and despicable as that may be, the options for the U.S. were, and remain, few, and none are particularly appealing.
The Obama Administration never knew what to do about Bashar al-Assad. They wanted him gone, but they didn’t have the means to remove him. After all, the American people were in no mood for another war in the Middle East to topple some dictator in the name of liberating the oppressed people (sound familiar?). Supporting the Kurds was tricky, because that alienated Turkey, a key U.S. ally who has deemed various Kurdish entities as terrorist organizations. The U.S. tried to back the anti-Assad rebels, but the faction itself was fragmented and it was probable that a significant number were of fundamentalist Islamic leanings.
And every passing day, it seemed more likely that Assad was going to stay in power and that Turkey and Russia were going to control the outcome–with the U.S. forced to look on from the sidelines.
Then came along Trump.
Trump promised to work with Russia to fight ISIS. He said he didn’t want to topple Assad. Essentially, Trump just wanted to get rid of the terrorist group, stabilize the region, and get out so he could focus on jobs, the wall (which is a waste of money, but that’s a topic for another day), and other domestic issues he at least seemed to know a little more about.
That all changed last week on April 6, when Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on the Syrian airfield that was used to deliver the chemical weapons attacks. Not only is the complete reversal cause for concern about Trump’s commitment to any sort of coherent foreign policy, but it’s also an omen that perhaps, like all his other flip-flops, he’s turning into a conventional Republican president–which, I will be clear, is not a good thing.
For one, the U.S. is already over-extended. The U.S. still has thousands of troops in Afghanistan. ISIS continues to pose a threat, albeit a lesser one, in the Middle East. Tensions with China in the South China Sea have grown considerably over the past few years. The Russian threat looming over Europe continues to cast ominous shadows over the continent’s present and future security. Now is not the time to get involved in yet another experiment in regime change.
And consider this: even if the U.S. were to topple Assad, who would they install in his stead? What was obvious in the Obama Administration, and perhaps even more obvious now under the Trump Administration, is that there is absolutely no exit plan. Nobody appears to know how to stabilize the region to ensure internal sectional conflicts or external terrorist threats don’t plunge the country back into civil war.
Acknowledging all these truths, it’s clear that there is only one option for the U.S.: keep Assad in power. Dictators, ruthless though they may be, remain dictators because they are capable of maintaining stability. Any destabilization in the region benefits ISIS, which is a much bigger threat to the U.S. than Assad, as evidenced with the previous capture of Iraqi and Syrian territory, and with it, the acquisition of weapons and armaments to continue the fight.
Perhaps the winds of change will again unexpectedly turn Trump’s view the other way, but until then, his foreign policy view is that of a misguided idealist.