Donald Trump’s many detractors tend to forget something important: The power of his office is such that simply by deploying the military might of the United States, he can change the national conversation in an instant. By ordering a missile strike on the Syrian airfield from which the Assad government — and, perhaps, its Russian enablers — attacked civilians with chemical weapons, Trump did just that. It isn’t clear yet whether this is the beginning of a more muscular, sensible approach to foreign policy in general and to Syria, Russia, and Iran in particular. But what we do know is that Trump has just demonstrated a capacity to rethink his previously held positions and to act decisively in response to an outrageous crime — in other words, the capacity to act like a commander-in-chief. This is something few of his critics thought he possessed.
Last night’s strike forced Trump’s media tormentors to stop speculating for the moment about unproven collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. It might also have begun the process of changing the way we think about Trump. We’ve lived through two months of what looked like a presidency in crisis, replete with West Wing palace intrigue and a disastrously failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump’s trademark lack of discipline and belligerent disregard for the truth had cratered his favorability ratings, and his failure to break through Washington’s gridlock had created a narrative of incompetence.
It is likely the opposite of what Trump’s critics and even many of his fans might have expected from him. And it highlights, for those who have been unwilling to see it up until now, the scope of his predecessor’s failures.
EDITORIAL: Syria: After the Airstrikes
But whatever former Obama administration officials claim, this week’s sarin-gas attack — and the atrocities inflicted on the citizens of Aleppo last year by the Assad regime and its allies — can be directly tied to the failures of their foreign policy. Had Obama acted in 2013 with anything like the guts shown by Trump this week, it is entirely likely that Assad would not have dared to use chemical weapons again.
Like Trump, Obama faced a variety of difficult and unattractive choices in Syria. Unlike Trump, Obama chose to back down. Trump could have used the same excuses — fear of angering Russia, congressional isolationists, and our unreliable allies — to justify doing nothing this week. Yet when faced with the consequences of Obama’s disgrace, he chose to act. That decision — and the salutary effect it is likely to have on rogue nations — is the strongest possible repudiation of Obama’s legacy.
Obama left the presidency riding a wave of popularity fueled in no small measure by the contrast between his calm and appealing demeanor and the personalities of his two possible successors. But that superficial evaluation seems unlikely to withstand the judgment of history over time. The pictures of Syrian children killed by nerve gas didn’t just remind Trump of his responsibility to act as if he is the leader of the free world; they also brought Obama’s record back into focus.
It remains to be seen whether Trump can build on this success, and we know enough about him to maintain a healthy skepticism that he can. But we also know that through his feckless refusal to act in Syria and his appeasement of Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies, Obama took no small ownership of one of the great human-rights catastrophes of the 21st century. At least as far as Syria is concerned, the narrative of a presidential transition from a wise man to an incompetent fool doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
— Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.
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