In April 2017, President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons. I supported the action then because I thought it was worth punishing a regime for using these dreadful weapons.
I was heartened to see that President Trump, who had campaigned on the narrowest possible conception of America's interests in the world, was acknowledging some broader global values. And finally, I was reassured that Trump was willing to act forcefully against Vladimir Putin, with whom he had until then conducted a strange and starstruck flirtation.
For all these reasons, I support President Trump's use of American military power this week, especially since this time it was done in collaboration with Britain and France. We are living at a time when many global institutions and values that were built up over decades are eroding or under threat. To have some action taken to even symbolically enforce the norm against using chemical weapons is worthwhile.
But this does not change the reality, about which I spoke at the time, that the administration still does not have a Syria strategy. In fact, you can see the incoherence in its approach by the fact that days before deciding on a military intervention, Trump had announced that American troops were soon going to withdraw from Syria altogether.
Trump's vacillation is simply a heightened version of the dilemma that the United States has faced from the start of the Syrian civil war. It has wanted to cheer on the forces of democracy. It has been dismayed by Assad's brutality. It has recognized the dangers of lawless areas in which Islamist radicals like ISIS can emerge. But it has never found a viable, moderate partner on the ground in Syria that was large or effective enough to have even a chance of becoming dominant militarily and politically.
So, under President Obama, the policy became a wish more than a strategy. Announce that Assad must leave but refrain from trying to actually make that happen, with the massive and prolonged American commitments it would entail. Fight ISIS, but limit American involvement to that specific goal. And take actions to deter the use of chemical weapons. In Obama's case, this involved working with the Russians to confiscate Assad's stockpiles. In Trump's case it has been two limited strikes.
But the overall approach is remarkably similar. President Trump, like Obama, is wary of American involvement and yet can't completely stay away, so he has come up with a few discrete ways to use American power without actually getting much involved in the Syrian conflict.
It is a sign perhaps of America's few options that on Syria, despite his protestations and his constant digs at his predecessor, Donald Trump has morphed into Barack Obama.
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- Trump called out Obama for tipping his hand in Syria. Now he's doing the same thing.