WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: (AFP OUT) US President Donald Trump flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) looks...
Pool

Whiplash: Trump completes a dramatic reversal with Syrian attack

Updated
Donald Trump was asked yesterday afternoon whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad should remain in power. “I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity,” Trump said of this week’s chemical attack. Referring to Assad, the American president added, “And he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen.”

The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/6/17, 9:18 PM ET

Meandering Trump Syria policy solidified by strike

Rachel Maddow talks with Brian Williams about the conflicting messaging from the Trump administration on Syria and its leadership in the week prior to the launch of missiles in response to an apparent use of chemical weapons.
We only had to wait hours to learn what “something” meant.
The United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria overnight in response to what it believes was a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 100 people.

At least six people were killed, Syria claimed, but the Pentagon said civilians were not targeted and the strike was aimed at a military airfield in the western province of Homs.
While there’s ample precedent for U.S. leaders modifying their positions after taking office, Trump’s change in direction in Syria induces whiplash. Before becoming president, Trump repeatedly insisted that the Obama administration not launch military offensives against the Assad regime in Syria. “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict?” he asked.

Trump, at separate times, argued that Obama would be making a “big mistake” if he failed to “get congressional approval before attacking Syria,” and that an offensive against Assad “could very well lead to World War III.” The list of Trump’s flip-flops isn’t short, but on this the Republican has been fairly consistent for years: he took an unyielding non-interventionist approach, especially towards the Middle East.

After the election, this didn’t change. Literally just six days before last night’s attack, breaking with the Obama administration’s support for regime change in Syria, the Trump White House said it had no choice but to “accept” the fact that Assad would remain in power. Trump’s Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations both said earlier this week that they’re prepared to leave Assad where he is.

By some accounts, the Syrian dictator interpreted the Trump administration’s stated position as a green light for more atrocities: if the United States no longer intended to remove him from power, Assad concluded, he could try to get away with more.

Dealing with the consequences of the conditions they helped create, Trump administration officials decided to quickly turn 180 degrees. The president who thought congressional authorization was necessary decided it no longer mattered; the non-interventionist administration decided to intervene in the Middle East; and the foreign-policy team that had abandoned regime change as a goal decided it now supports regime change after all.

Trump’s policy towards Syria on Monday bears little resemblance to his policy towards Syria on Thursday.

The point here is not to simply marvel at presidential hypocrisy. Rather, what matters is why Trump changed his mind so dramatically, what his new policy will look like going forward, how the White House will try to deal with its haphazard national-security apparatus, and how the rest of the world should react to a U.S. administration that seems to adopt a rather meandering approach towards matters of national security.

We don’t know why Trump changed his mind, who changed his mind, or what kind of policy the president intends to pursue in the future. We don’t know whether, or when, to take the president’s own words seriously. We don’t know what other core commitments he’ll abandon with little, if any, rationale. We don’t know if Trump’s approach to foreign policy tomorrow will have any resemblance to his approach to foreign policy today.

TPM’s Josh Marshall had a good piece along these lines: “Whether he’s changed his position isn’t that important. But the rapidity and totality with which he’s done so is important. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the intervention question. But impulsive, reactive, unconsidered actions seldom generate happy results…. [W]hile I agree it’s silly for now to focus on calling Trump a hypocrite, the man’s mercurial and inconstant nature makes his manner of coming to the decision as important as the decision itself.”

Donald Trump, Foreign Policy and Syria

Whiplash: Trump completes a dramatic reversal with Syrian attack

Updated