Did anyone expect Trump voters to enjoy a four-year journey of harmony among the ranks? In these unpredictable times, one thing anyone could easily predict is that the President’s mercurial curiosities would lead us to moments that would delight some of his base and repel the rest.
Welcome to Syria vs. “America First.”
Equally predictable: a media narrative that seeks to pit Trump supporters against each other; witness the series of questions to administration key players as to whether the vastly popular Shayrat airfield raid constitutes an abandonment of his familiar campaign theme of avoiding fruitless foreign entanglements.
But the question has merit. Many Trump voters hinged their support on his passion for solving problems within our shores: jobs, immigration, tax reform, sensible environmental policies and dismantling the oppressive regulatory state. A corollary to that support was enthusiasm for what he indicated he would not do: enmesh the American military in further exploits among the brutal moonscapes of the Middle East.
Much notice has been paid to the power of the visuals of the chemical attacks that motivated Trump to launch those Tomahawks. To those supportive of the response, it shows a Commander-in-Chief open to examining wide latitude of actions when appropriate circumstances arise. But to those opposed, it is alarming evidence that Trump can be lured away from his own past pronouncements and into a habit of engagement which could lead to a nationalist nightmare: the distraction of more foreign warfare.
So who is right?
Everyone sharing analysis should lay cards on the table, so here are mine. I love the portions of Trump doctrine that promise devotion to finding solutions at home, and the accompanying commitment to view foreign policy through a lens that puts U.S. interests ahead of United Nations whims and globalist folly.
But I confess, I cheered the air strikes. So what kind of odd hybrid creature am I?
I don’t believe I am rare. I believe most Trump voters supported delivering a message to Assad, and do not believe that he has now cast “America First” to the wind. In fact, I believe there is an argument to be made that last week’s surgical response can be a worthy part of a Mideast policy package that contains eradication of ISIS, advocacy of Syrian regime change and a wake-up call to Russia, Iran and North Korea.
What is necessary now is restraint. Easy to say, I know, but does anyone think President Trump is eager to roll 100,000 troops into Syria as we did in Iraq more than a decade ago? Against that backdrop of history, even the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham sounds low-key when he suggests a force of roughly 5,000 to show we are vitally interested in helping to stabilize Syria in ways that fall short of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s palaces and overseeing more torturous nation-building.
Some may draw their own line in the sand: not one soldier. Not one baby-step toward mission creep. No means no. That is not unreasonable. But here’s a domestic Trump policy that is well served by some attention to the inner workings of Syria: the influx of refugees.
Virtually every Trump supporter has railed against the ill wisdom of allowing insufficiently vetted waves of Syrian refugees to storm our shores. A large subset of that view is the observation that if Syria were less of a hellhole, maybe the Syrians would be happy to stay in their own country.
(Pause button: Was that the greatest CNN segment in history Friday as a Syrian expatriate not only rejected a force-fed narrative that kindness to Syrians requires broad refugee acceptance, but profusely thanked Trump for his actions?)
There is no part of “America First” that requires isolationism. Trump did promise to vanquish ISIS in a variety of colorful descriptions; did anyone imagine some magic wand that would achieve this?
A sensible, measured American engagement in the Middle East is thoroughly compatible with what most Trump voters saw, and admired, as a stark contrast with Barack Obama’s feckless, impotent “leading from behind.” Most Trump votes did not come from the Rand Paul wing of Republican Land.
But they did come from millions of voters ranging from hesitant to hostile if faced with the prospect of diving into more Mideast quagmires. One particular Ann Coulter tweet spoke for them on Thursday night: “I expected to spend this part of the Trump presidency tweeting that it’s legal to deport anchor babies, not arguing against another Mideast war.”
I suggest that one airstrike need not dissolve the miraculous coalition that fended off a Hillary Clinton presidency, and that her embrace of the idea of airstrikes does not make them an inherently bad idea. In fact, I do not fully believe she ever would have done it.
I do not expect hardcore nationalists to suspend their objections. But it is wise to note that this brief flash of American muscle was well noticed in capitals from Damascus to Moscow to Tehran to Pyongyang. And it is noticed in Beijing, where the Chinese President is freshly returned from watching Trump give the launch order over dessert at Mar-a- Lago.
And if we are indeed interested in policies that have meaning in the daily lives of Americans, there is no conflict in welcoming an American moment of response that says we are paying attention to the worst behaviors of the world’s worst tyrants.
There is no basis for forcing some binary choice between “America First” sensibilities and appreciation of the lesson we just delivered to Syria. It may well be that we have been well served by that message, and that various misbehaving regimes now realize that if they envision further mischief, they had best weigh the reaction of America first.