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.
Yet in less than a week, Trump just proved that he is capable of reacting to unforeseen events, evaluating the options, and then making what appears to be exactly the right move at exactly the right time. The precision strike on Syria was an appropriate use of force that sent a powerful message to the butcher of Damascus and his patrons — and hopefully to other rogue nations such as North Korea — while avoiding all-out war. Just as important, it reasserted America as a force to be reckoned with and made clear that those who believe the U.S. is too war-weary and afraid of foreign entanglements to respond to the most blatant, brutal war crimes have another thing coming.
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
As even some of Trump’s liberal-media tormentors felt compelled to mention, Syria’s use of chemical weapons was proof that President Obama’s effort to save face following his “red line” fiasco had failed. After threatening strikes but then backing down, Obama punted responsibility for dealing with Assad’s chemical weapons to Russia. The notion that the Syrian government’s key ally would vigorously enforce an agreement to confiscate and destroy all such weapons was always more of a prayer than a policy, but to the end of his presidency Obama insisted that the “red line” episode had turned out well, ignoring proof that Assad retained much of his arsenal. Because the Obama administration so skillfully manipulated its pliant media “echo chamber” — to use former deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes’s phrase — it got away with that lie, much in the same way it was allowed to pretend that its deal with Tehran had ended the Iranian nuclear threat, or would in any way restrain the Islamic Republic from continuing to spread terror and seeking regional hegemony through its depredations in Syria.
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.