Commentary: Trump's Syria quandary

Just a week ago, the headlines about President Trump and Syria all contained the word "withdraw."  The president's directive to the U.S. military was to find a way out -- sooner rather than later.

"He did not want to be having the same conversation about withdrawal six months from now," one White House official said, according to the Washington Post. Instead of more U.S. involvement, the administration wanted our allies to "put more skin in the game," as press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders put it.

Then came more images of Syrian children choking to death from an apparent chemical weapons attack, and everything changed.  

President Trump tweeted about the "animal Assad" and his Russian and Iranian backers, warning of a "big price to pay."  The administration has called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Monday. Mr. Trump is scheduled to have dinner with senior military leaders on Monday as well.  

"Nothing is off the table," Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert told ABC News. 

Is this foreign policy by photo-op? A president immediately reacting to what he sees on TV rather than implementing a long-term strategy for the seven-years-long Syrian civil war?  And if President Donald "America First" Trump does have a doctrine, what is it?

These questions have been quietly debated on the Right for a year now, since the president launched a missile attack on Syria in the wake of a horrific chemical attack last April.  The reaction from the Right to Trump's intervention wasn't just mixed. It was practically schizophrenic.

On the one hand, Republicans who'd complained about President Obama's fecklessness were delighted to see his failed Syrian policy shown up by a Republican president. The success of Trump's missile attack begged the question, "Why didn't Obama do this years ago?"

On the other hand, foreign adventures—particularly in hot, sandy places—were precisely what many GOP primary voters hoped their vote for Donald Trump would avoid. His base is not exactly the "John McCain" wing of the GOP.  

So what is the Trump Doctrine?  

"There isn't one" says Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "To have a doctrine implies a certain consistency that, after a year of the Trump presidency, has yet to be in evidence."  Gerecht, who believes Mr. Trump's talk of withdrawal and America's lack of response to recent small-scale chemical attacks against civilians "contributed to hubris on the Syria-Iranian side," says that even another massive U.S. missile attack wouldn't mark a change in our policy. He observes, "Trump's real contradiction is the conflict between his anti-Iran, anti-Assad rhetoric versus his willingness to abandon Syria to the Assad-Iran-Russia axis." 

That would involve more direct action by the U.S., including actively supporting rebels on the ground in Syria. And that's not an option President Trump would consider.

It's a contradiction that extends across the Republican Party. Some anti-interventionists, like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, stood by their more isolationist principles and continue to oppose U.S. military action in Syria, even in the wake of last year's sarin gas attack.

"As horrific as those attacks were, and as heart-rending as the pictures and the atrocity and the children dying are, I don't believe that was a national security interest of the United States," Paul told CNN at the time. 

But other members of the #MAGA coalition found ways to reconcile Trump's intervention with their America First philosophy. Just days after last year's missile attack, Brandon Weichert wrote for the populist "American Greatness" website:

"When Donald Trump campaigned on his 'America First' principle, he did so not because he adhered to the kind of isolationism that defined the group that coined the name and existed between the World Wars. Rather, he meant it literally: that the United States would always act to protect its national interests."

Weichert, a fellow at the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute insisted that, under Trump: "There would be no more quasi-Marxian-sounding 'wars of liberation.' The United States would spill its blood and spend its treasure only to defend its interests."

Apparent chemical attack in Syria kills at least 40 people

How is a country gassing its own people—as awful as that is—an American interest for an America First president?

"A key tenet in the protection of America's interests is to prevent the Mideast from exploding into a regional ethno-religious war (that would most assuredly see nuclear weapons being used)," Weichart argued.  "We must also attest that no American interests are served by a repeat of what we did in Iraq (and attempted to do in Libya) in Syria today."

Weicher reasons that it's in our interests to maintain order in the Middle East, and avoid another Iraq.  Except that the fastest way to achieve order is to empower the thug Assad to bring Syria back under his authoritarian control.  But he's the very person President Trump is considering attacking again. How does that make sense?

It doesn't—as a doctrine. But it might as politics.  When Paul argues against American intervention because "we don't, frankly, do it for every atrocity in the world," he's right. 

But as foreign policy analyst Thomas Joscelyn said over the weekend, "If there's not a U.S.-led response in this case, there won't be any response." Paul's argument is also not very satisfying to Americans seeing these horrific images on their TV screens at home, who may harbor the same fears Joscelyn does.

Having an "American Greatness" doctrine is one thing.  Feeling good about your nation and the role it's playing in the world is another.  Punishing a dictator for gassing children is an opportunity for America to both do the right thing and feel great about it.

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