Donald Trump's Syria Problem

Donald Trump responded to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by lobbing some missiles at the Syrian air base from which the gas attack was allegedly launched. Some have described it as a fireworks display intended more as a message than a serious military strike, but that fireworks display was quickly rivaled by the fireworks that erupted on social media among Trump supporters following the strike. Opinions were decidedly mixed between those who enthusiastically supported the strike and those who saw it as a betrayal of Trump’s promise for a more America first foreign policy with very little middle ground in between.

Many of Trump’s more “regular” Republican supporters saw the strike as evidence that a “new sheriff is in town.” In their minds Trump demonstrated with the airstrike that he will not be pushed around unlike President Obama who they perceived as “weak” on foreign policy. On the other hand, many of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters were extremely disappointed with Trump’s decision and were not shy about saying so. For example, Anne Coulter, who was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Trump, expressed her dismay in no uncertain terms. Paul Joseph Watson of InfoWars announced that he was now off the Trump Train.

So what explains this dichotomy of opinions? As I have explained elsewhere (see here and here), while Trump campaigned on a foreign policy agenda that was atypical for a Republican, especially if you were sensitive to nuance, the majority of rank and file Republican voters remain at least somewhat hawkish on foreign policy. While the average GOP voters is not nearly as Wilsonian as are the neocon talking heads that are so often trotted out to speak on foreign policy for Republicans and “conservatives,” they still reflexively believe that the U.S. should have an outsized role on the world stage such that “punishing dictators” is the purview of a U.S. President and the U.S. military. Decades of catechization on the matter are hard to overcome overnight. What Trump’s campaign demonstrated is that these same hawkish voters will tolerate and even applaud an America first foreign policy message that acknowledges the mistakes of the past such as Iraq, but it would be a mistake to assume that they took Trump’s invocation of America first as a wholesale change in direction.

There is, however, a segment of Trump supporters who hoped that Trump’s atypical rhetoric on foreign policy – America first, NATO is obsolete, Iraq was a disaster, no more regime change, etc. – did, in fact, signal a totally new direction. It is this segment that has been so dismayed by the strike on Syria which seems to signal that Trump has reverted to a more standard GOP position on foreign policy. This perception is reinforced by the praise for the missile strikes coming from “regular” Republicans and much of the mainstream media. For Trump’s noninterventionist supporters, the bombing of Syria represents a betrayal of a core feature of what they believed made Trump truly a different kind of Republican.

The Trump campaign’s success in the Republican primaries and general election reflected an emerging dynamic of nationalism vs. globalism that was to some degree distinct from the right vs. left dynamic that generally characterizes U.S. elections. For Trump’s supporters who embraced this nationalism, they see a more restrained America first foreign policy along with immigration restriction and opposition to free trade dogma as a unified whole. All three are the inherently anti-globalist positions. Being nationalist on immigration and trade but internationalist/globalist on foreign policy makes no sense to them.

Rank and file Red voters responded well  to Trump’s positions on immigration and trade (except for free trade ideologues who dominate the Republican Party apparatus and Conservative Inc. but have never represented the majority of actual Republican voters), but likely didn’t recognize Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric as the radical departure it arguably was. This was not helped by Trump’s tough talk about ISIS and the Iran deal. So, some typical Trump supporters don’t see his actions in Syria as a betrayal, some hawks see it as a positive and reassuring development, but some of his hardest core nationalist/anti-globalist supporters see it as a fundamental change in course from what they were promised during the campaign.  

The reason why foreign policy opinions are so often dichotomous is that when it comes to basic underlying premises, there is little middle ground. Either Syria is inherently the U.S.’s problem because of our unique role in the world, or Syria is not our problem, and we should mind our own business and disavow any unique global role. If you accept that Syria is somehow America’s problem, then you are simply arguing over degree and strategy, which is what the currently ascendant globalist consensus does whether “left,” “right,” or “center.” If you reject that the U.S. has any responsibility for what goes on in a sovereign nation state halfway around the globe, then espousing any action on our part in Syria is unjustified and evidence you have adopted the competing premise.

Hence, Trump taking action against Syria for alleged wrongs puts him on the wrong side of the premise regardless of the effectiveness of the action. Since noninterventionists are used to being in the minority and swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom, they are acutely sensitive to this underlying difference in premise. This is why the nationalist webosphere exploded in dismay and anger following the Syria strike to an extent that might have struck some as disproportionate. For example, Trump’s core of nationalist supporters, while many may have seen it as unfortunate, did not view Trump’s embrace of Ryan Care with nearly as much consternation as they did his strike on Syria. The former did not represent a fundamental betrayal in the way the latter did.

The problem for Trump is that while interventionists of varying degrees still make up the majority of Republican voters, he has permanently alienated some of his hardest core supporters and risks alienating many more of them completely if certain trends continue. When the going gets tough, and it will, it is these hard core supporters that Trump will need to have his back, as they did in the campaign. His new found hawkish allies who didn’t support him in the first place, will quickly throw him under the bus if things start to go south for the Administration.   

Part of Team Trump may have gotten the message because they were quick to disavow that the missile strike meant we would be sending large numbers of troops into Syria, but the Trump Administration is obviously embroiled in a struggle between a nationalist faction that represents the policies and direction that Trump campaigned on and a globalist faction that represents the status quo. Trump better learn quickly that he needs to dance with “the one who brung ya,” as the old saying goes, or else that partner is going to leave the dance floor in a snit.