Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of “America first.” During the campaign, he argued, “We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world where they’re not paying us what we need.” Yesterday, President Trump signaled in a press conference that his attitude on foreign policy may be becoming more interventionist.
The catalyst for the change was this week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria that left at least 70 people, including many children, dead. Evidence points to the use of deadly sarin nerve gas by the Assad regime in the attack.
To make matters worse for the Trump Administration, many cite the comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a likely encouragement for the Assad regime to conduct the attack. Last week, Tillerson said in Turkey, “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” a statement interpreted by many as indicating the US would not involve itself in ending the Syrian civil war.
“Yesterday’s chemical attack, a chemical attack that was so horrific in Syria against innocent people, including women, small children and even beautiful little babies, their deaths were an affront to humanity,” President Trump said in a press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah. “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack and all other horrific attacks, for that matter.”
When asked if the attack crossed a “red line,” Trump replied, “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line.”
Today sources are reporting that the president is considering options on how to respond, but that a firm decision has not yet been made. Complicating the matter are Trump’s campaign promises to have the United States play a smaller role in humanitarian missions and the fact that Russia is heavily involved in Syria. Over the past few years, Russia has supplied Syria with sophisticated air defenses and modern combat jets that would make an American attack difficult.
In spite of a withdrawal of most Russian units from Syria last year, NBC News noted recently that Russian combat troops are still in Syria, sometimes “within hand grenade range” of American soldiers. The presence of Russian soldiers and airmen heightens the possibility of escalation if Russians are killed by an American response.
In spite of the difficulties, President Trump has laid down the gauntlet. After his strong criticism of President Obama for backing down from his own “red line” comments, Trump has no choice, but to act decisively or lose all credibility with the dictators of the world. How the president handles the situation in Syria will affect how other countries from North Korea to Iran treat his administration.
The choices of strategies for intervention in Syria range from a full-scale invasion to limited air strikes of the sort that then-Secretary of State John Kerry called “unbelievably small” when President Obama faced a similar situation in Syria. A likely response would be use cruise missiles and manned aircraft to attack Syria’s air defenses and facilities where chemical weapons are produced and stored.
In the press conference, Trump seemed undecided on how to react and stuck with his patented brand of unpredictability. “I’m not saying I’m going to be doing anything, one way or another,” he said, “but I’m certainly not going to be telling you.”