A lot of the news coverage of President Trump's decision to attack a Syrian airfield focused on how this represented a huge about-face on Syria policy, but I think there is a way to square the attack with his broader campaign rhetoric. Don't get me wrong. I am well aware of Trump's tweets from 2013 both warning President Obama against attacking Syria and demanding he get congressional approval for any strike. I think those are fair game and the Washington Examiner has highlighted those tweets. There's also no denying that Trump blasted the idea of the U.S. getting involved in more Middle Eastern wars throughout the campaign. But I also think that the popular emerging coming-of-age narrative of a man who feels the weight of the presidency on his shoulders, shocked into action by emotional images of gassed children, is a bit too limiting, and it neglects a common thread of Trumpism.
Going into the 2016 election, many Americans, especially many Republicans, were unhappy with the past 15 years of U.S. foreign policy. This group of people came to hate the prospect of perpetual war in the Middle East that they experienced during the Bush years, but they also viewed President Obama as a total wuss and wanted America to seem strong. The core Trump voters were not philosophically Rand Paul style non-interventionists. They were the type of people who cheered on "shock and awe" during the initial Iraq invasion but didn't like the idea of America spilling blood and treasure forever to keep Arabs from killing each other.
Several contenders for the Republican nomination attempted to reconcile the two competing impulses. Sen. Ted Cruz, for instance, portrayed as a false choice the idea that there was either the neoconservative Sen. John McCain school of interventionism or the more libertarian and non-interventionist school represented by Sen. Rand Paul. Cruz described his view this way: "if and when we are called to use military force, we should do so with a clear defined objective that is directly keyed off of U.S. national security. We should go in with overwhelming force. And then we should get the heck out." Gov. Scott Walker, in his short-lived campaign, also tried to thread this needle. He talked about how presidents shouldn't point a gun that they weren't prepared to shoot. And in a widely mocked campaign analogy, he described how President Ronald Reagan's firing of the air traffic controllers sent a message to the Soviets, and he then connected this to his battles with the unions in Wisconsin, which he suggested prepared him to be tough on the Islamic state. The ultimate point was: If you project strength, you don't have to actually get to the point of intervening militarily.
Trump, of course, was more successful than any of these candidates. Though he didn't try to convey any sort of coherent grand strategy, his own disjointed heterodox statements actually made people feel that on a gut level, he was basically where they were. He blasted all the money wasted on wars in the Middle East while Americans suffered at home, even shouted during a Republican debate, with a Bush on the stage, that President George W. Bush lied us into war in Iraq. He talked about the disaster that Obama and Hillary Clinton created by getting involved in Libya. On many occasions, he sounded like somebody who would be quite comfortable at a "Code Pink" protest.
Yet on many other occasions, he talked about how he was going to "bomb the shit" out of the Islamic State. He defended waterboarding. He told audiences that "folks we've got to get tough." He even said that he wouldn't take using nuclear weapons off of the table. A central part of his criticism of Obama was that he was weak and always got outplayed on the world stage. Many of Trump's infamous statements defending Vladimir Putin were framed around his being a strong leader when it came to advancing Russia's interests, contrasting it with Obama's weakness. And to his critics, nothing epitomized Obama's feebleness more than Syria, where, as Trump puts it, he "drew a red line in the sand" and then did nothing, communicating weakness to everybody.
So basically, there's a clearer continuum between Thursday's decision to launch missile strikes against Syria than it seems at first blush. Whereas Obama public announced a red line and then dithered when it was crossed, so the argument goes, Trump acted swiftly, essentially enforcing Obama's red line, without proclaiming his intentions in advance. The strike was limited to the airfield where the chemical weapons attack was believed to be launched from, and it's being described as a one-off proportional response, not part of any sort of sustained campaign to tilt the balance in the civil war, achieve regime change, or representative of a commitment to foster democracy in the Middle East. Intended message: Unlike Obama, Trump is not messing around. Unlike Bush, he isn't getting us sucked into another conflict. To be sure, despite these intentions, Trump's decision to launch a military strike in Syria could very well drag the U.S. into a broader military conflict, but we can only speculate on that. For now, it's fair to say, that though both the act of attacking Syria itself and the failure to get congressional approval contradicted numerous Trump statements, Trump's action was consistent with the general "I'm gonna be a badass but don't want to spend money building other countries while our airports fall apart" ethos of his campaign.