The U.S. missile strike on the Syrian government’s al-Shayrat air force base on April 4 signified a dramatic departure from the “America first” doctrine that Donald Trump embraced during his presidential campaign and the first 77 days of his presidency. While justifying the strike as a means of avenging the deaths of “beautiful babies” and deterring the further use of chemical weapons, Trump also demonstratively repudiated a core organizing principle of his presidential campaign.
Asserting that the United States “represented the world,” he declared that “As long as America stands for justice then peace and harmony will prevail. God bless America and the entire world.” Suggesting the possibility of Russian complicity in the sarin gas attacks, he announced that “NATO is no longer obsolete” minutes after having signed the authorization for Montenegro to become its 29th member.
Speaking in Ankara on March 30 just 5 days before the strike, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had reaffirmed the “America first” doctrine with respect to Syria that was entirely consistent with Russia’s longstanding position: “I think the longer term status of President Assad will be determined by the Syrian people.” By contrast, on April 12 after meeting with Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Tillerson stated that “The final outcome does not provide for a role for Assad – or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria.”
Notwithstanding Trump’s visceral reaction to the tragedy in Khan Shaykuhn, the strike itself, and the transformation of policy that accompanied it, represent attempts to salvage a beleaguered presidency. By the end of March Trump’s approval rating had fallen below 38% and his administration was mired in chaos and conflict. A bill designed to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, a centerpiece of the campaign, had been derailed in the House of Representatives amid deep divisions within the Republican Party. Federal courts had struck down two executive orders designed to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States.
By advocating detente with Russia, Trump had incurred the wrath of the foreign policy establishment in both parties. A toxic neo-McCarthyism was curated in the media, and further encouraged by Democratic Party leaders. Asking if “the presidency is effectively a Russian op,” MSNBC’s liberal icon Rachel Maddow accused Russia of waging “international warfare on our country.” Having investigated members of his campaign since July, 2016 on suspicion of ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, the FBI appeared to be closing in on a number of associates and even family members. The disgraced former NSC Director Michael Flynn had requested immunity from prosecution in order to testify before the House Intelligence Committee. The mutiny within the Republican Party over the failed health care bill was a reminder that impeachment requires only a simple majority in the House of Representatives.
The decision to bomb Syria and confront Russia thus represented the most significant step to date in the restoration of the foreign policy establishment. Given the incompatibility of the “America first” project with the interests of the most powerful centers of corporate and political power, no outcome other than restoration was remotely possible. Preservation of the imperium, and especially its Middle Eastern energy-core, is not a “policy choice” but rather an unconditional imperative for the American state. No president who continues to acknowledge on national television that “We have a lot of killers” and ask “You think our country is so innocent?” could expect to last long. Repudiation of the twin pillars of the state religion-- exceptionalism and humanitarian intervention—was Trump’s mortal sin which could never be forgiven.
Trump’s “great transformation” in foreign policy, moreover, took place in the context of the rapid retreat from economic populism by an administration drawn largely from Wall Street, the military industrial complex, and the oil and gas industries, symbolized by the dismissal of the prominent “white nationalist” and former campaign director, Stephen Bannon, from the National Security Council.
The attack on al-Shayrot was greeted rapturously by Trump’s erstwhile establishment critics. Reprising their role as cheerleaders for the Iraq War in 2003, the media abandoned all pretense of objectivity and proportion. The nation’s five largest newspapers collectively published 18 op ed articles in praise of the strikes, while declining to include a single critical article. Fareed Zakaria enthused on CNN that “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night. I think this was actually a big moment.” Brian Williams, anchor for the liberal MSNBC cable channel, rhapsodized about "beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments." Criticism was limited to the absence of congressional authorization, which would certainly have been forthcoming. The attack was arguably illegal under domestic law, and clearly so under international law.
If the U.S. media have eschewed a serious examination of Syria’s “moderate rebels,” so have they failed to examine critically official U.S. claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Shaykuhn. These claims require independent confirmation, especially given the absence of a plausible motive on the part of the Syrian government, and the fact that the region surrounding Khan Shaykhun is controlled by the rebel group Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al Nusra, or al-Qaida in Syria) while investigators have not been granted access to the area. The NSC’s four-page de-classified White Paper setting out the case for Assad’s responsibility has been unconvincing on multiple grounds not only to Russia, which has categorically denied Syria’s (or its own) use of chemical weapons, but also to distinguished scholars, respected former weapons inspectors, and diplomats. As former UK Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford has written, “There are two possibilities for what happened. One is the American version, that Assad dropped chemical weapons on this locality. The other version is that an ordinary bomb was dropped and it hit a munitions dump, that jihadis were storing chemical weapons. We don’t know which of these two possibilities is the correct one. “
While G-7 ministers meeting in Rome on April 11 endorsed the U.S. strikes they rejected Britain’s bid for increased sanctions on Russia, citing insufficient evidence of Syrian government responsibility and calling for an independent investigation. Democratic U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a decorated Iraq war veteran, declared that “This administration has acted recklessly without care or consideration of the dire consequences…without waiting for the collection of evidence from the scene of the chemical poisoning.” Notwithstanding her stated commitment to endorse Assad’s prosecution and execution as a war criminal if he is found culpable by an independent experts, senior Democratic Party leaders called her a” disgrace” and declared that “she should not be in Congress.”
The aerial assault on Shayrat certainly brought Trump some respite. Trump himself is well aware of the relationship between war and popularity, having tweeted in 2012, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin — watch him launch a strike in Libya or Iraq. He is desperate.” However, despite the expected (although modest) improvement in poll numbers, he remains deeply vulnerable, indeed perhaps even more so as the Great Restoration is further consolidated. His transactionalist instincts might lead him to seek compromises, as indicated by Tillerson’s aforementioned visit to Moscow, which resulted in limited steps towards de-escalation and endorsement of Syrian national unity. However, Trump will be pressed relentlessly by a bipartisan coalition of liberal hawks and neoconservatives who have been emboldened and smell blood. The investigations will not stop. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called for a cessation of attacks on ISIS and the partition of Syria. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have also appealed for further military escalation, including the establishment of no-fly zones and the grounding of the Syrian air force. These reckless actions would significantly increase the risk of war between the world’s two great nuclear powers.