National Column: Why Trump reversed himself and attacked Syria

by Thomas Walkom

How to explain Donald Trump’s radical about-face on Syria, Russia and China? Analysts are at a loss.

Leaders do change their views. But the U.S. president’s sudden transformation from isolationist America Firster to big-time global policeman boggles even the most jaded of minds.

Some argue that Trump is a mindless flibbertigibbet who makes decisions based on the last thing he’s seen on cable TV.

Others point to the vicious back room infighting among Trump’s most senior advisers. The decision to bomb a Syrian government airfield, stoke the Cold War with Russia and embrace China is said to represent the victory of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over strategic adviser and isolationist Steve Bannon.

Still others say Trump is just nuts.

All three explanations may contain some truth. But there is a simpler one. It is that Trump has belatedly discovered the lopsided political reality of the American presidency. Presidents don’t have a free hand on the domestic front. They must win congressional approval for just about anything they do. But when it comes to military adventures abroad, they are virtually unconstrained.

I’m not sure that Trump understood this when he was running to become president. He seemed to think that by sheer force of personality he could persuade Congress and the courts to approve his ambitious domestic agenda.

But nothing has worked out as planned. His attempt to limit immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries is tied up in the courts. His bid to terminate Obamacare and replace it with something else failed abysmally.

His promise to overhaul the tax system in order to keep American manufacturers in the U.S. is bogged down in confusion. His pledge to rewrite or scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement is grinding through the mills of congressional procedure.

It seems that even his promised wall along the Mexican border won’t be quite as advertised.

But there is another side to the American presidency where these pesky limitations don’t arise. Presidents may not have the power to declare war. That is the prerogative of Congress. But they do have extraordinary power to make war.

The Korean and Vietnam Wars were fought by presidents without formal declarations of war. So were the war against Afghanistan, the two wars against Iraq and the war against Libya.

For a president frustrated in his domestic agenda, the prospect of military action must seem almost irresistible.

George W. Bush was a joke figure before 9/11. A prime-time sitcom on television was devoted to mocking him. But by attacking Afghanistan, Bush elevated himself to the status of war president. He became serious.

So it is with Trump. Now that he has used missiles to attack the Syrian government, even his enemies on the editorial board of the New York Times take him more seriously.

If Trump is a war president in the making, several things follow. First, he can no longer be seen as sympathetic to Russia. If Syrian President Bashar Assad is Trump’s enemy and Russia backs Assad, then Russia must be an enemy as well.

Hence Trump’s decision to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly badmouth Russia.

Hence also Trump’s very public embrace of NATO this week. The old Trump was right about NATO. In a post Cold-War world, it was obsolete. Its attempts to regain relevance by, for instance, acting as the UN’s military agent in Afghanistan, were unsuccessful.

But in a world where the Cold War burns hot again – the world of the new Trump – NATO is essential.

If Russia is the enemy again, then the U.S. must have an alliance in Europe to confront it.

Finally, China. To the old Trump, with his eyes firmly fixed on domestic U.S. matters, China was an unfair trade competitor. To the new interventionist Trump, China is a valued friend that can pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

And if China fails in that, as it has done many times before, Trump can always repair to the White House situation room – or perhaps, as he did when ordering the strike against Syria, to the dining room of his Florida estate.

Those are the places where war presidents get things done. No muss. No fuss. No interference from Congress.

When Trump gave the order to attack Syria last week, he did so over chocolate cake. He called it “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you have ever seen.”

Copyright 2017 Torstar Syndication Services

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