It may be hard to believe, but Donald Trump is even more simplistic than George W Bush in matters of war. George W Bush enjoyed all the certainty of a very simple man: you were either with us or against us, good or evil, marching for democracy or plotting terrorist attacks.
Yet Donald Trump contrives to make Bush look like a Baron von Metternich of complexity. He just launched military strikes against a brutal Syrian regime he used to describe as “NOT our problem.” That’s the same Syrian regime propped up by his own Russian friends.
There’s a lot to be said for moral clarity after the Assad regime’s disgusting chemical attacks that murdered so many civilians in northern Syria this week. But that’s not what Trump represents. His moral certainty was nowhere to be found in 2013, after the first large-scale chemical attacks that crossed Obama’s infamous red line. “President Obama, do not attack Syria,” tweeted Trump. “There is no upside and tremendous downside.”
Now Trump himself is upside down on Syria. He initially blamed Obama and his red line for the chemical attacks this week, insisting that the overblown rhetoric had hurt the United States. This from a man who told this gem to reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday: “I think we’ve had one of the most successful 13 weeks in the history of the presidency.”
Yes, Donald Trump is a great big bag of contradictions and he just swaggered his way into the single most complex civil war in living memory. A war that is even more complicated than raising a high-rise hotel in a foreign capital.
At least Bush took more than a year after 9/11 before he invaded Iraq. Trump hasn’t reached the 100-day mark and he’s already walking into his own quagmire.
Because he can’t stop with one volley of Tomahawk missiles. There will be more human rights abuses and more massacres. And Trump will be forced to decide between bombing regime targets or bombing targets belonging to its biggest rebels: the Isis forces Trump has already condemned as the most evil group on the face of the planet.
This was the kind of quandary Obama couldn’t resolve. Could they launch effective strikes without triggering a full war with the Assad regime and its Russian supporters? What would all those strikes do to the very civilians the US was supposedly concerned about?
Trump now cares deeply about the suffering of Syria’s civilians and refugees. Under any circumstances, this is a development we should all welcome. The most vulnerable people on the planet need all the help they can get from anyone with any power to make a difference.
“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically,” Trump told the cameras on Thursday night. “As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.”
It is very hard to square this Donald Trump with the Donald Trump who described Angela Merkel’s refugee policy as “an utterly catastrophic mistake” and called the Iraq invasion “possibly the worst decision that has ever been made in the history of our country.” That other Donald Trump only made those pronouncements two months ago.
Let’s just pretend that Donald Trump has undergone a conversion of biblical proportions on the road to Damascus. Let’s assume his old slogan of America First is non-operational, and his support for his own travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries has just been eviscerated by several dozen Tomahawks.
For this conversion to stick, for this moment of moral clarity to be credible, we should now see a few immediate reversals on the rest of the Trump agenda.
He might start with his revised Muslim travel ban (currently blocked by the courts) which halts all refugee entry for 120 days while his officials develop new ideological tests known as “extreme vetting.” He might welcome the refugees coming from Australia, in what he used to call a “dumb deal.”
He might reverse his proposed budget that guts funding for the United Nations, overseas aid and the state department in general. This is, after all, a newly-woke president who understands the importance of multilateral treaties monitored by the UN system.
“There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council,” Trump said on Thursday night.
The challenge for this all-new season of Trump is that his first and biggest test is credibility. The world needs to trust the United States: that these bombing targets are legitimate, that the Syrian regime is indeed responsible, and that the president has the legal authority and political support of the international community and the Congress.
Credibility and legitimacy, it’s fair to say, have not been Trump’s strong points to date. He has rejected the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies on Russia’s interference in his own election. He believes climate change is a Chinese hoax. He insists on lying to world leaders about the size of his inauguration crowds and the non-existent margin of his election victory.
Let’s hope, for the sake of Syria’s civilians – whose suffering has been shamefully ignored for far too long – that the new Donald Trump can straighten himself out in time for the next round of Tomahawks.