Donald Trump

Syria Shows Not Much Has Changed Under Trump's Foreign Policy

The cautious prudence the U.S. desperately needed after a decade and a half of shoot-from-the-hip interventionism has been relegated to a talking point.


It was March 29, a brisk spring day in Ohio, and President Donald Trump was speaking about his infrastructure plan to a crowded arena. But the comment that grabbed many people's attention was not about roads or bridges. It was on Syria, and Trump's message was simple: U.S. troops would soon be packing up their bundles and coming home.

"We're knocking the hell out of ISIS," he said. "We'll be coming out of Syria like very soon. Let the other people take care of it now." A week later, at the White House, he told his national security team that he wanted U.S. forces to pull out as soon as the mission could be declared a success.

If you didn't know better, you might have thought it was 2016 and Trump was still a presidential candidate trying to separate himself from the knee-jerk interventionism that has defined U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Back then, his foreign agenda lacked details but offered a theme: The United States would be tough on terrorists and confront Iran, but American taxpayers would no longer write checks to build schools in Afghanistan or accept the deployment of unlimited troops for unlimited durations with unachievable, unnecessary missions. In short, we would be far pickier in deciding where and how to use military force.

The first 16 months of the Trump presidency, however, have been anything but the clear-eyed pragmatism he promised on the campaign trail. With the exception of his crackdown on free trade, the president's foreign policy has turned out to be exceedingly establishmentarian in its orientation. Diplomats and government officials from previous administrations may have concerns about Trump's curious respect for strongmen, but the fear many hawks harbored about a U.S. retrenchment (and the hope some libertarians felt that this might be the start of a less interventionist era) was apparently misplaced.

Take Afghanistan, a war now in its 17th year, which started as a just mission to eliminate those responsible for 9/11. Years before Trump declared his presidential aspirations, he wrote what many Americans believed about the war: that it had become a strategic blunder. In 2012, he called it "a total disaster" that proved America's leaders didn't know what they were doing. A year later, he tweeted his support for "a speedy withdrawal." Trump, after all, was a businessman, and Afghanistan was a losing investment. "Why should we keep wasting our money?" he asked.

Yet once he had the power to actually pull out American troops, Trump deferred to a national security team led by establishment figures such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and then–National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. As in previous administrations, the generals got what they requested—no change in strategy, just more time and resources.

Of course something similar is now playing out in Syria. Trump has taken the very approach that he counseled against in 2013—all without obtaining congressional approval, as the Constitution requires.

His decision to launch a punitive missile attack against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for that regime's use of chemical weapons was precisely the opposite of what Trump had recommended when he was a private citizen. "We should stay the hell out of Syria," he wrote on Twitter in 2013—nothing good would come from direct U.S. military involvement, and as terrible as Assad is (and he is indeed loathsome), the people who would ride into Damascus could be even worse. Yet this year, at the conclusion of an interagency debate, Trump settled on intervention—an operation that would have been even more extensive were it not for Mattis' push to keep the strikes as limited as possible and ensure they don't escalate into a full-scale military confrontation with the Russians.

There are many more examples of Trump veering toward mainstream interventionism. (In May, he announced he was reimposing sanctions on Iran and pulling out of the nuclear deal with that country struck under Obama.) The bottom line is clear: The cautious prudence the United States desperately needed after a decade and a half of shoot-from-the-hip interventionism has been relegated to a political talking point.