Syria is a dead end for President Trump

Here's why Trump should think twice before attacking Syria again

A convoy of U.S. armored vehicles near the western outskirts of Manbij, Syria, on March 5, 2017.
(Image credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

At first blush, President Trump's decision to launch reprisal airstrikes on Syria seems to have paid off. At least politically.

A CBS News poll taken over the weekend revealed that a bipartisan majority of American voters support the attacks on the Shayrat air base, from which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched the chemical-weapons attack on a small town in Syria. Fifty-seven percent favored the strikes, while only 39 percent disapproved. A Washington Post poll found a slightly narrower but still significant majority backing President Trump's military action, 51 percent to 40 percent. Some of Trump's fiercest critics on both sides of the aisle have praised his decisive reaction, and are pushing for a stronger American position on the Syrian civil war and Russian protection of Assad's dictatorship.

The reprisals appear to have had other salutary effects as well. Most of America's Western allies rallied behind Trump despite earlier differences on policies regarding Syria and refugees. After the strike, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled a more cooperative approach to the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula, and followed through with a refusal to offload coal from North Korea, cutting off Pyongyang's main source of hard currency. Russia has angrily protested the strike, but even that serves Trump politically at home, reminding everyone that Trump was less friendly to powers outside the U.S. than some of his critics imagined.

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These gains and the rare moment of bipartisanship might persuade Trump to pursue a more traditional Republican interventionist policy. But regardless of whether or not that is the correct policy, it's likely to become a trap for Trump, and a political dead end as well.

Politically, such a move would present a sharp reversal from the promises Trump made in the campaign to the anti-establishment voters who carried him to victory last November. More than most presidents, Trump has to rely on his base for political capital. Unlike Barack Obama, whose personal popularity saw him through political setbacks, or even George W. Bush, whose own promises of a more "humble" foreign policy fell by the wayside after 9/11, Trump has no personal-popularity margin for error.

Voters didn't rally to Trump's side last year because they found him likable; they supported him because they didn't like the Washington establishment and its policies, and elected him to disrupt both. Trump's professed "America First" policies that promised significant disruption to the interventionism in both Republican and Democratic administrations, a theme Trump constantly hammered during the campaign. At one memorable GOP primary debate, he openly accused Bush of lying to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, touching off a heated exchange with Jeb Bush, who defended his brother's policies and pledged to return to them. The Florida governor easily had the best campaign-finance operation in the primaries, but folded early as Trump soared — a lesson on the popularity even among Republican voters of interventionist policies.

The decision to strike Syria at this point has Trump voters scratching their heads, Byron York notes, especially because Trump has offered no explanation for the change nor expressed a coherent strategy behind it. The majorities in both polls are also deceptive, a Republican pollster explains to York, who points out that support for follow-up strikes are stuck in the mid-30s, and that the reprisal on Shayrat has not lifted Trump's overall approval ratings. Those are warning signs that Trump lacks a mandate for extending his new policy, especially without explaining how far the strategic change goes.

That lack of limits presents another problem for Trump, too. Already, some in Washington want to see Trump go much further along the interventionist spectrum in Syria. After a fumble by press secretary Sean Spicer in mentioning "barrel bombs" as a potential red line (Spicer walked it back later), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN that the U.S. should respond militarily if Assad uses barrel bombs. Calling this red line "long overdue," Graham argued that the principle and policy should focus on what happens on the ground, not necessarily the methods used. "It's not about how you killed the babies," Graham declared, "it's the fact that you're slaughtering innocent people through air power."

Applying that standard to the Syrian civil war may well be justifiable considering the brutality of Assad, but it would require a full-scale military intervention. That would produce a hot confrontation with Russia, which has been firm on its support for Assad, and with Iran too. That may still be the right action to take, but it would require a president who is temperamentally inclined toward such military actions, and a base of political support to enter a new war. Trump has neither; he is much more inclined toward insular policies, and the country clearly does not want to escalate the conflict, as both polls showed.

As conservative radio host and early Trump backer Laura Ingraham put it: "I'm not sure getting rid of Bashar al-Assad was at the top of the list of the people in Pennsylvania."

President Trump has achieved one important accomplishment with his reprisal strike on Assad's military: He has forced America's opponents to reckon with our potential response. That element has been missing for several years, and it is not without value. Unless Trump can make a case for being a war president with the commitment to see it through to the end, though, he would be better advised to stay out of the Syrian trap as much as he can, and hope that one example will be enough to keep antagonists guessing.

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