About midday through his speech on infrastructure yesterday, Donald Trump made a familiar argument: he believes post-9/11 investments in the Middle East were wasteful. It led to these unscripted comments:
“We spent – and I was against [the war in Iraq] from the beginning. They try and say ‘Well, maybe not.’ I was against it from the beginning.
“And, by the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take of it now. Very soon – very soon we’re coming out.”
But it’s that other part of his comments that seems especially important.
As regular readers may recall, just a few months into his presidency, Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian airbase controlled by the Assad regime. The Republican was quick to make clear, however, that this wasn’t the start of a major shift in U.S. strategy. “We’re not going into Syria,” Trump declared in April.
Even at the time, it was an odd thing to say, since we were already in Syria.
But even putting that aside, in January, the Trump administration said that U.S. forces aren’t just in Syria, they’ll also remain in Syria, long after the fight against ISIS ends. Indeed, Politico noted overnight that Defense Secretary James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and incoming White House National Security Advisor John Bolton have all articulated a longer-term American commitment in Syria.
All of which made it confusing when the president declared yesterday that “we’re coming out” of Syria “very soon.”
It’s possible that Trump disagrees with the Trump administration. It’s also possible that the president has changed his mind about U.S. policy in Syria (and may yet change it again). Those looking for consistency on international affairs from this president are going to be disappointed.
And then there’s the question the president would probably prefer to ignore: didn’t Trump vow to never telegraph his plans for the military?
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake had a good piece along these lines:
That is something Trump criticized repeatedly on the 2016 campaign trail and the beginning of his presidency. He said it would only tip off the enemy, and he has said it specifically about Syria.
“One of the things I think you’ve noticed about me is: Militarily, I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing,” Trump said in April 2017 in remarks about Syria.
Nearly a year later, here we are, watching Trump say, militarily, what he’s doing. I’d love to hear the White House’s explanation for the shift.