There are seminal moments in a US presidency, often sadly sparked by catastrophe. Recall the Srebrenica Massacre for Bill Clinton and 9/11 for George W Bush. Likewise, Tuesday’s horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria marked a turning point for Donald Trump’s nascent presidency and US global leadership more broadly.
So, struck by the tragic images of dead and dying children in Khan Sheikun in Syria, the next day an emotional Trump announced to the world that, as US President, he had a responsibility to respond to the attack that crossed “many, many lines, beyond a red line”.
And, unlike Barack Obama, who failed to take military action when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack in 2013 killing nearly 1500 of his own people, the US under Trump responded decisively.
Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian government air base that was decisive and strategic. It took out Assad’s ability to launch further chemical weapons attacks, at least from that site. Further strikes on Syrian air bases will be necessary.
Trump’s action against Assad marks a great turning point in US foreign policy.
On any level of morality, Trump’s actions should be welcomed. The message is clear: Trump is a President prepared to take strong action against grotesque abuses in support of a rules-based international system.
But it is significant for other reasons. Firstly, within the all-important first 100 days of his presidency, when US presidents are supposed to enact policy and set the tone for their agenda, Trump has performed an about-face on foreign policy. His campaign rhetoric last year called for a winding back of US adventurism and regime change, and to construe more narrowly American national interest. He condemned US interventions into Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan as absolute failures, going well beyond what he considered were US interests.
He did, however, pledge to take a hardline approach to defeating radical Islam and Islamic State, given the threat they pose to American values and way of life.
What a difference a week makes. The rhetoric has gone, replaced by swift action. The speed with which Trump can change his mind is, well, typically Trumpian. This is a man ruled by instinct, not ideology.
Trump was unashamed when he admitted this week that he’s casting the US national interest far wider than he expected. That is no surprise when you consider he has surrounded himself with some of the most experienced and sound foreign and defence policy minds: Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to name only two. While Trump’s quickfire change in strategic posture might disappoint the doves and US isolationists such as Bernie Sanders, the Republican establishment has breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Leading Republican figures such as former presidential nominee John McCain and candidate Marco Rubio have praised Trump for his decisive action.
Assad’s ability to launch further chemical weapons attacks has been diminished.
That is because Trump is reverting to longstanding US positions on its leadership role in upholding global peace and security. His recent robust statements on North Korea also indicate he has a much bigger appetite to take on international threats to peace, security and global prosperity than initially thought. For this, as a US ally, we can be thankful.
Trump’s strike against Assad put the US back on course after the fecklessness of the Obama years. Obama’s failure to act against Assad in 2013, despite saying use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” for the US, had severe consequences for its standing in the world and enforcement of the global rules-based system.
Obama’s inaction in 2013 sent a message to Russia and China that the US would no longer be upholding that global order. So we saw Russia and China fill the vacuum. Russia annexed Crimea in Ukraine and took a leadership role in the Middle East, especially in Syria, while China built up islands in the South China Sea, becoming more and more aggressive in its behaviour towards the US and its allies in those waters.
TRUMP’S action against Assad marks a great turning point in US foreign policy. This will make countries like Russia and China hesitate when it comes to their own foreign policy actions. They will realise they are no longer dealing with a feckless leader like Obama, who withdrew troops from Iraq, creating a vacuum to be filled by Islamic State; who wanted to draw down troops in Afghanistan despite the ongoing security concerns there; who in Libya would provide only US logistical support, not leadership.
Rather, we may at last be seeing the return of an America prepared to uphold the rules-based international system and, importantly, stand up for humanity.