While Trump’s Syria strike left friends and foes believing he has no foreign policy doctrine, I think there is a Trump doctrine and it’s a good one too.
In the wake of Trump’s narrowly tailored strike against Assad’s air force base (a strike preceded by a warning to the Russians to get their personnel out), Trump has experienced something of a ratings bounce according to the always-dubiously reliable polls. I suspect that a lot of that bounce is because the sarin gas attack affected people emotionally.
To get a sense of the emotions involved, I recommend a surprising source: Piers Morgan, an unexpected hawk, wrote a moving article about sarin’s unusual cruelty and the way in which that inhumanity is somehow magnified by the children who were many of its victims:
Sarin is a man-made nerve agent 26 times more deadly than cyanide.
It was developed in 1938 by German scientists as they attempted to create stronger pesticides.
The formula was swiftly passed to the military, who discovered it had such a horrendous impact on the human body it could become a weapon of mass destruction.
Yet the effects were so appalling that even the Nazis reportedly held off using it on the battlefields during World War II, fearing massive retaliation.
Imagine that for a moment? This was considered too heinous an instrument of death even for Hitler to deploy against allied forces.
Sarin is a liquid that evaporates quickly into colourless gas with no smell or taste, so there is no prior warning when it attacks.
It just absorbs into the skin of its victims, permeating the membranes and lungs.
Once inside, it goes to hideous work, breaking down the nervous system so vital organs all start to lose control.
Your eyes water uncontrollably, you spew saliva and vomit, your bowels evacuate, your vision fails, your breathing collapses, your chest explodes with pain.
Then your whole body violently convulses and you become completely paralysed.
If you’re lucky, you die within 10 minutes. If you’re not, it can take a lot longer. Or, perhaps even worse, you survive but with dreadful brain damage.
This is what those Syrian children went through before they died.
The photograph made me cry.
As regular readers know, I’m not someone to be moved by the argument that a specific course of conduct is “for the children.” Eight years of Obama rule show that everything can be sold “for the children.” The reality is that around the world children’s inherent vulnerability means that they will always be affected first and worst by something bad. This means that their utility as a moral guide is limited because everything can be for the children.
Nevertheless, I think it’s plain that many people, both in and out of the media, saw those pictures as Morgan did and felt that Assad’s tactic exceeded the bounds of ordinary warfare and decency (yes, even warfare can be “ordinary” and “decent” within the context of killing). It therefore required some sort of payback. As no one in Syria was capable of inflicting that payback against Assad, these same people are happy that Trump took upon himself America’s familiar mantle: The avenger of the innocents.
I wouldn’t mention Morgan if he’d merely stopped with pathos and bathos. In the second half of his article, however, he articulates why I believe Trump made a reasonable decision when he launched the surgical strike against Assad’s military capabilities:
Spare me all the weasly words of dismay this morning at this US military action.
It wasn’t just warranted – it was imperative.
I say that as someone who campaigned vociferously to stop the disastrous war in Iraq, which was waged on the entirely false pretext of Saddam Hussein having WMD, and as revenge for the 9/11 attacks that had nothing to do with him.
The crucial difference here is that Assad hasn’t just got WM, he indisputably just used them on his people.
The US tracked his planes on radar from their departure to their delivery of Sarin-laced bombs.
They saw it all happen in real time.
And Assad is a repeat offender.
In 2013, he unleashed Sarin rockets on rebels in Ghouta, near Damascus, killing 1,729 people.
That incident crossed a red line that President Barack Obama had publicly drawn in the sand just a year before.
‘We’ve been very clear to the Assad regime that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,’ Obama said in August, 2012. ‘That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.’
His then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, agreed, saying: ‘Everyone has made it clear to the Syrian regime that (chemical weapons use) is a red line for the world.’
But when Assad duly crossed that red line, nothing happened.
The world’s greatest military power let him get away with it.
When you let a tyrant get away with WMDs once, he’s going to do it again. Once loosed, they are a plague that unleash deadly, impossible-to-contain forces. There’s a reason the civilized world refuses to deviate from the Geneva Convention’s proscriptions against chemical agents in warfare. Given the unspeakable reach and cruelty of these weapons, and the temptation they hold for immoral tyrants, the world must act, and act swiftly, when a tyrant uses them.
Unlike Obama, who gave Assad carte blanche to use chemical WMDs again, Trump acted immediately and decisively. That sort of narrow action has always been within the president’s purview, and Reagan and Clinton both took advantage of it in their time.
For people like Ann Coulter, though, there’s a devastating sense that her idol turned out to have feet of clay:
Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Mideast. Said it always helps our enemies & creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV.
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) April 7, 2017
He told us he would be the president of America, not “the world.” Could somebody show him pictures of Americans raped & killed by illegals? https://t.co/zhdohjXgdf
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) April 7, 2017
I understand Coulter’s dismay, although I think she’s wrong.
On the Left, dismay isn’t the right word. Crazed conspiracy madness better describes what’s happening. They are having a field day.
Of the many wacko theories, my favorites come from Lawrence O’Donnell and Bill Palmer. Palmer started it, even before Trump responded, when he theorized that Putin got Assad to launch the attack to entice Trump into war. Palmer further believes Trump was ready and waiting for this moment because, says Palmer, ” Rachel Maddow reported on her MSNBC show that Trump has already secretly positioned hundreds of U.S. grounds troops in Syria.” And why would Putin and Trump do this? Hold onto your hats for a very bumpy theory:
I think Putin, Assad, and Trump are betting on this chemical attack motivating the American public to decide it’s okay with American military intervention in Syria. The trio is merely gambling that most Americans won’t notice they’re entering the war in favor of the genocidal Assad, instead of against him. And Trump believes he can boost his approval rating by initiating some winnable military action in Syria, whereby he wipes out the rebels that Russia wants gone anyway, and then announces that he’s instead wiped out ISIS. And again, he hopes the average American isn’t aware that ISIS was mostly wiped out in Syria during the Obama administration.
The net result of this would be that Russia gets to keep its oil arrangements in Syria intact, Assad gets to be finally rid of the rebels who have long been trying to overthrow him, and Trump gets a boost to his approval rating for successful military (supposedly) against terrorists. So all three of them would win. But the U.S. military would lose, being sent into harm’s way to fight the wrong people for no valid reason. And the Syrian people would lose, because Assad is the worst thing that’s ever happened to them, and the rebels are their last hope.
O’Donnell’s theory is a little more simplistic, although it seems to build on what Palmer started. According to O’Donnell, Putin planned the attack to help Trump who needs a war to boost his popularity:
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” O’Donnell asked a nodding, smiling Rachel Maddow, “if it was just completely, totally, absolutely impossible to suspect that Vladimir Putin orchestrated what happened in Syria this week — so that his friend in the White House could have a big night with missiles and all the praises he’s picked up over the past 24 hours?”
Maddow, O’Donnell, and Palmer fail to recognize that Trump is no friend to Putin. Nothing makes that more clear than Trump’s push to turn America into an oil exporting nation, something that undercuts the small part of the Russian economy that’s not already under water.
The Russian conspiracy is a worm in the brain of the same people who applauded when Obama, faced with Assad’s first WMD attack, ran away from the red line he’d drawn and handed Syria over to Putin. Then, with Kerry’s and Rice’s connivance, Obama pushed what we now know is a lie: That Putin and Assad (who must have been laughing themselves sick), purged 100% of the chemical weapons from Assad’s stockpile.
In their lunatic world, Russia is only a good guy when it’s partnering with Obama’s plans. Anyway, these theories are nonsense and I discount them accordingly.
As you can see, when it comes to Trump’s decisive action against Assad, theories abound: He was moved by a photo. He couldn’t resist getting sucked into the Middle Eastern black hole (with help from that neo liberal icon Jared Kushner); He’s propping up Putin. Putin is propping up Assad. And on and on.
The one thing about which all the theorists agree is that there is no Trump doctrine when it comes to foreign policy. He’s always a puppet of someone stronger than he is or a slave to his own emotions.
I differ in that I think there is a Trump doctrine. Moreover, I’ll keep differing until it’s clear that Trump has definitively abandoned his oft stated aversion to getting America affirmatively involving itself in foreign wars (assuming he ever does). Let me explain.
Trump’s slogan when he ran was “Make America Great Again.” Greatness including un-tethering America’s economy from burdensome Obama-era regulations and from trade deals Trump believes are unfair.
A subset of “Make America Great Again” is “Make America Safe Again.” Domestically, that means putting the brake on unlimited illegal aliens coming into the country; stopping the influx of refugees from terrorist support nations and communities; restoring police to their traditional role enforcing law and order in American communities; and helping black communities partner with the police for the benefit of all.
Internationally, Trump hasn’t provided much of a road map. We know that he thinks America has harmed herself with foreign military entanglements. Trump’s no idiot, though (no matter what the Left tries to say). He knows too that, even as America may try to avoid foreign entanglements, in our hyper-connected world, bad actors may wish to bring those entanglements to our shores. He therefore has a doctrine, an unspoken doctrine, that I think of as “Trump’s electric fence.”
The electric fence theory is that Trump envisions our nation being surrounded by an invisible, but powerful, electric fence. Normally, the fence is dormant (and, optimally, it stays closed when illegal aliens come knocking). Thus, unless America comes under direct attack, the fence just sits there. Trump does not intend to look for trouble, start wars, or build nations.
However, if a nation launches a direct attack against the US or something happens abroad that Trump perceives as touching the fence, well, then holy Hell is going to break lose in the form of huge surges of deadly power against the person, entity, or country that triggered this defensive fence. Weapons of mass destruction — and Morgan is right that sarin is a WMD — touch the fence no matter where they are deployed. The fact that a single drop of this liquid can kill a person in a horrible fashion means that sarin cannot be allowed to exist anywhere. If it’s there, America is at risk.
America at risk triggers the Trump doctrine, firing off the electric circuits in the fence. Boom! A huge reprisal.
Moreover, to the extent the electric fence is very visible (it’s not backdoor negotiations), when it fires, Trump is sending a message to other bad actors. “Touch my American fence, and you too will get blown up. Stay away from the fence and, unless you do something overtly threatening, such as WMDs that are a danger to America no matter where in the world they appear, I’ll leave you alone.”
That’s the Trump doctrine: Leave me alone, I’ll leave you alone. Touch my fence, either directly or by creating a risk I can’t ignore, and I will destroy you.
If I’m right, the Trump doctrine is not a bad doctrine at all. I’ll be interested to see if subsequent events support my take on things.