In some ways, the most remarkable thing about President Trump’s decision to fire missiles at Syria last week was how oddly traditional he made it sound. As he explained his reasons for military action, our normally unorthodox president borrowed a well-worn list of justifications from his predecessors: United Nations resolutions, international norms, compassion for civilians (in this case, “beautiful babies”), even the proposition that “America stands for justice.”
It was as if the Donald Trump who ran as an America First isolationist had suddenly morphed, once confronted with real-life choices, into an old-fashioned internationalist.
I’ve read quite a few versions of this, and I don’t get it. Sure, Trump ran as an American Firster, but that was mostly related to trade. When it came to military action, he didn’t say much, but when he talked about Iraq and Syria his preferred solution was to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” In a primary debate, he suggested he might send 30,000 ground troops to Iraq. He described himself repeatedly as “the most militaristic person you’ll ever meet.” He wants to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion, and he recently approved a multibillion arms deal for Bahrain. He hasn’t yet approved a plan to arm the Kurds, but apparently Kurdish leaders are hopeful that this will change soon.
Donald Trump is no isolationist. He’s a standard-issue hawkish, blustering Republican when it comes to war in the Middle East. There was absolutely nothing surprising about his cruise missile display against Syria, and nothing to suggest it represents a policy change of any kind. Why do so many people think otherwise?