National Security & Defense

What Syria Teaches Us About ‘America First’

President Trump with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Brussels, May 2017. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Fears of Trump being isolationist were unfounded. Like much else, his foreign policy is mainstream Republican.

The slogan Donald Trump embraced during his campaign for president sent shivers down the spines of many Americans with a sense of history. “America First” was a phrase that seemed indelibly linked to pre–World War II isolationists. The America First movement was not only wrong in its belief that the war against Nazism and Japanese imperialism was none of this country’s business; it was also willfully blind to the horrors of the Nazi regime. The shame of that mistake still clings to the reputation of its leader, Charles Lindbergh.

Though Trump seemed to be oblivious to the phrase’s unsavory associations, they seemed to fit in with some of the opinions he voiced during the campaign. His criticism of the Iraq War often went further than acknowledging the mistakes made by the Bush administration. At times he seemed to be mimicking the views of the far Left as he excoriated U.S. involvement overseas. Though he promised to defeat ISIS, he specifically eschewed any further “nation building.” That left it open to questions about how Islamist terrorists would be prevented from retaking power once he was done “kicking ISIS’ ass,” as he repeatedly claimed he would do. The “America First” tag seemed not so much an assertion of priorities as it was an appeal to those who saw the country as a perpetual victim of nefarious foreign influences.

But as with so much else about the Trump presidency, the gap between the boasts and rants of the campaign trail, where he promised to revolutionize every aspect of policy, and the reality of governing has been immense.

That is especially true in foreign policy, as “America First” has turned out to be just a slogan and did not foreshadow an administration that overturned 70 years of post–World War II policies based on the prudent and effective use of U.S. power aboard.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Syria. True to his word, Trump has overseen a campaign that resulted in the decisive defeat of ISIS. Apologists for President Obama claim that Trump merely carried out his predecessor’s plan. But the truth is that the battle was stalemated until Trump came into office and unleashed the military with new rules of engagement. Instead of Obama’s micromanaging of the war, which resembled nothing so much as Lyndon Johnson’s and Robert McNamara’s failures in Vietnam, Trump wisely let the military fight. The result was a clear victory that had eluded Obama in the two years he had mismanaged the conflict.

Now that the fight against ISIS is in the mop-up stage, there are those who, remembering Trump’s campaign speeches, might expect him to remove American forces from Syria. Declaring victory and leaving the mess to someone else might be the impulse of a president who really was acting in the spirit of the old America First movement. But it turns out that Donald Trump is not such a president.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced last week, the United States will not be pulling its troops out of Syria. To the contrary, the administration is in this fight for the long haul, and though it will not be labeling any of its activities there as “nation building,” the implication is clear and directly contradicts the spirit of the Trump campaign’s version of America First.

To his credit, Trump is trying to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors rather than repeat them.

Predictably, this drew fire from the left, with Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Cory Booker appealing to his party’s base by tearing into Trump’s policies in a New York Times op-ed. Booker accused Trump of carrying on an undeclared war and risking future conflict with the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. Like other critiques of Trump’s decision, this was reminiscent of the ways our current president and many liberals attacked Bush on Iraq.

But, to his credit, Trump is trying to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors rather than repeat them. Trump knows that ISIS arose out of the vacuum left by Obama’s precipitous retreat from Iraq, which threw away the victory won by Bush’s 2007 surge. If ISIS is to stay defeated and not be replaced by yet another, even more barbarous, Islamist group, it will require an American commitment to stay in the combat zone.

If that were not enough, Tillerson’s announcement also made it clear that worries that Trump’s apparent soft spot for Vladimir Putin would lead to a policy of appeasing the Russians in Syria were also unnecessary. Tillerson argued that the American decision to stay in Syria would also be a check on the Assad regime. Though Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies as well as Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries have defeated the dictator’s enemies, so long as Americans remain in Syria, his effort to regain total power in that devastated country will be frustrated.

While the situation there is fluid and Trump is mercurial enough that it is impossible to predict what will happen next, we can nonetheless draw some conclusions from his first year in office.

Far from being neo-isolationist, or anything else that ought to bring to mind the phrase “America First,” Trump’s presidency has turned out to be little different from what we might have expected from almost any of the other Republican candidates (besides Rand Paul) who opposed him. It would be a stretch to call Trump a closet neoconservative, and the atmospherics and rhetoric as well as the tweets concerning foreign policy have at times been essentially Trumpian. But the actual policies pursued by the administration could be described as mainstream Republican in their reliance on the assertion of American power abroad. Rather than governing like a president who fears foreign involvement, this is an administration willing to fight in Syria and stay there even if it means antagonizing Russia.

Trump’s version of “America First” is turning out to be nothing more than a reassertion of mainstream Republican thinking about the need to assert U.S. power to defend our interests and values. Like his conservative governance on many domestic issues, Trump’s Syria policy is one more proof that if you can ignore the tweets, the gaffes, the thin skin, and the impulse to rage at his foes (which, admittedly, is often impossible because the president not only can’t help himself but is actively encouraged to behave in this manner by much of his base), the Trump presidency isn’t the revolution his fans or his foes assumed it would be. That’s good news for Republicans and U.S. allies and bad news for ISIS, Assad, and Putin.


The Trump Doctrine: American Interests Come First

Why are we Still in Syria?

Iran’s Challenge to America in Syria


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