Trump: Neither an Isolationist nor an Adventurer
The world’s policeman is back on the beat. That is the overriding message sent by the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that bombed Syria’s Shayrat air base, the base from which the sarin gas attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun was launched on April 6.
Prior to President Trump actually being tested on the international stage, many critics interpreted his “America first” foreign policy as isolationist.
But Trump has never himself described his policy that way.
In his inaugural address, Trump said: “From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
Trump’s emphasis has been on how best to serve American interests, not on the question of engagement or disengagement with the world.
But he has been a critic of certain kinds of engagement.
Trump has in the past suggested that getting involved in Syria would be a mistake. Those statements reflected a disinclination to get the United States mired in foreign wars, and are similar to Trump’s earlier criticism of the regime change and nation-building wars of the George W. Bush presidency.
Trump has also been critical of the ineffectiveness of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, which placed a priority on working through multilateral relationships and institutions.
For Obama, multilateralism places a check on American hubris, which he regards as to blame for American mistakes.
Ideologically, Trump falls between Bush and Obama. He believes the United States is the greatest country in the world, and he professes to love it passionately.
On the one hand, Trump rejects any need to apologize, like Obama did, for the United States on the world stage. On the other hand, he does not believe, like Bush did, that America’s greatness includes remaking other nations in our image.
In his inaugural address, Trump said, “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.”
Trump said in that address that the United States will “reinforce old alliances and form new ones.” These alliances will have a more sober basis than Bush’s adventurism and a greater appreciation for America’s fundamental decency than Obama.
Military action such as the bombing in Syria is taken to stop evil from proliferating.
Victor Davis Hanson, writing for the National Review, described Trump as “Hobbesian.” According to Hanson, Trump sees the world as a hard place where there are always going to be bad actors. One can’t eliminate evil, but one can beat it down and make it less dangerous than it otherwise would be.
“Iranian theocrats and Chinese Communist[s] do such things the same way that a pit bull cannot stop biting,” Hanson writes. “In time, by vigilance and deterrence, you can discourage such chronic chomping, but you are not going to spend blood and treasure in an effort to make a pit bull into a poodle.”
Trump has said that he wants, in the manner of Teddy Roosevelt, a “big stick”—a military so powerful that the United States can get its way by merely threatening action. Military action would not be necessary if adversaries retreated at the sign of U.S. opposition.
The bombing of the Syrian air base helps reestablish that the United States has a big stick and is willing to use it.
The credibility of U.S. threats diminished throughout an Obama presidency that distrusted American power, but the key moment in that decline came in August 2013.
Obama had drawn a red line on Aug. 20, 2012, saying that poison gas attacks would not be tolerated. One year and one day later, Assad launched a sarin gas attack on a suburb of Damascus that is believed to have killed hundreds.
After considering a military response, the Obama administration brokered a deal with Russia for the removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal that the recent attack shows was not honored.
The failure to punish Assad for the gas attack left an important principle of the international system unenforced: that chemical weapons are unacceptable.
Trump’s bombing, which has been criticized by some as an ineffective gesture, re-establishes that basic moral and political norm.
This is why some former members of Obama’s administration have praised Trump’s action.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was a policy planner in Obama’s State Department, tweeted, “Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally!! After years of useless hand-wringing in the face of hideous atrocities.”
The United States has at times been called “the indispensable nation.” Since World War II, the international system has depended on the United States taking the lead.
Trump’s foreign policy is still a work in progress, but he has given notice that he intends the United States to be out front again, in a manner consistent with U.S. interests.