President Trump’s decision to strike Syria with cruise missiles after its use of chemical weapons signals a fundamental shift in the “America First” doctrine he espoused during last year’s campaign. Unless it doesn’t.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Amb. Nikki Haley offered different responses to that question Sunday, reflecting a lack of clarity about whether Trump is pivoting to a more expansive view of the U.S. role of the world, or simply responding in one particular case to heart-wrenching photos of “beautiful babies” dying. As the new president moves toward the 100-days milestone of his tenure at the end of the month, foreign governments, congressional leaders and even his own aides continue to search for clues to what might comprise a Trump doctrine on foreign policy.
“One strike does not a strategy make,” former CIA director David Petraeus cautioned on CNN.
The stakes ahead aren’t limited to Syria. The potential repercussions around the globe extend to how tough a line Trump might take toward North Korea for its nuclear weapons program and whether he’ll pursue warmer relations with Russia. It could affect U.S. relations with China, Iran and Europe. At home, there are political consequences after the strike brought praise from some unlikely sources — among them former Obama administration officials and such frequent GOP critics as Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain — and alarm from some who had backed his election.
“I guess Trump wasn’t ‘Putin’s puppet’ after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet,” Paul Joseph Watson of the alt-right Infowars complained on Twitter Thursday night. “I’m officially OFF the Trump train.” (The next morning, he tweeted that he was “off the train” only on Syria policy.)
During the campaign, Trump promised to focus on defeating ISIS terrorists but to withdraw from much of the broad U.S. engagement in the world that has emerged since World War II. He had urged then-president Barack Obama specifically to stay out of Syria, arguing that its civil war shouldn’t become America’s problem.
But in remarks late Thursday from his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, Trump said he ordered Tomahawk missiles launched at a Syrian airfield because it was in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
So does the administration now seek the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
Haley said yes. “There’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime,” she said on CNN’s State of the Union.
Tillerson said no. “I think the president was very clear in his message to the American people that this strike was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons against women, children, and as the president said, even small babies,” he said on ABC’s This Week. “Other than that, there is no change to our military posture.”
The Syrian attack comes amid increasing White House activity on foreign policy. Over the past week, Trump met at the White House with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ending a freeze by the Obama administration for a leader who initially took power in a military coup. He met in Washington with Jordan’s King Abdullah II and in Florida with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Tillerson is scheduled to travel to Moscow this week.
Meanwhile, Trump has shaken up the National Security Council staff, consolidating the preeminence of national security adviser H.R. McMaster. White House strategist Steve Bannon was bumped from the so-called principals committee and K.T. McFarland is on her way out as a deputy national security adviser. She will be nominated as ambassador to Singapore instead.
McMaster declined to clarify just where the president stands on Syria, denying that Tillerson and Haley had contradicted one another. “While people are really anxious to find inconsistencies in those statements, they are in fact very consistent in terms of what is the ultimate political objective in Syria,” he insisted on Fox News Sunday. “The resolution of the conflict will entail both of the elements that you’re talking about.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said with a mischievous smile that listeners could chose to believe what they wished.
“Ambassador Haley just said on your program, ‘You’ll never end the war with Assad in power,'” Graham said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “So that means regime change is now the policy of the Trump administration — that’s at least what I’ve heard.”