Trump’s sudden transformation to war hawk could sink his cause
Throughout his campaign and even in his controversial inaugural address, President Donald Trump emphasized his commitment to placing “America first.” The historically dubious slogan, believed to be pushed by adviser Stephen Bannon, saw the bombastic former reality TV star assuring the masses that under his leadership, the U.S. would not rush into armed conflict and would avoid serious entanglements in trade and defense. On several occasions during the campaign and throughout President Barack Obama’s administration, candidate Trump spoke out against intervening in Syria. Three months into his presidency, it would appear that President Trump has changed his mind.
Following the bombing of Syria on April 6 and Thursday’s deployment of the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat in Afghanistan, it would appear that President Trump has now traversed the well-traveled road of campaign isolationist to presidential hawk.
While President Obama was far from an isolationist, he did campaign on his opposition to the war in Iraq. He promised that, under his command, the U.S. would seek international diplomacy and avoid “dumb wars.” The Obama presidency, however, became infamous for its heavy reliance upon drone strikes and special operations, most of which were performed without the approval of Congress.
George W. Bush also campaigned on a less interventionist strategy, as he advocated that the U.S. participate in fewer nation-building efforts. The actual decisions of his administration were quite different.
Lyndon B. Johnson won reelection in 1964 by promising not to expand the conflict in Vietnam. He promptly did just that.
Woodrow Wilson won reelection in 1916 also by promising to avoid conflict, campaigning on the slogan: “He kept us out of the war.” One year later, the U.S. declared war on Germany and entered into the fray of World War I.
History finds that presidents quickly realize that foreign policy decisionmaking looks substantially different once in office and away from the campaign trail. Candidates promise to avoid conflict when they’re on the campaign trail because there are no tangible stakes. But when faced with a humanitarian crisis or a terrorist nation-state or a brutal civil war, doing nothing suddenly becomes much harder. The decision to not intervene can yield just as brutal criticism as intervening. Bill Clinton was heavily criticized for his decision to not intervene during the Rwandan genocide. From that point on, he proceeded to deploy the U.S. military with a greater — and some would argue, reckless — frequency.
Although polarization has made political lines much easier to define in recent years, foreign intervention remains an uncertain issue. While Democrats are generally regarded as doves and Republicans are seen as hawks, it was Hillary Clinton who advocated for the very same kind of strike on Syria that President Trump used later in the day. Clinton had actually been the interventionist candidate throughout the election. Simply put, political lines do not clearly define this issue. Liberal justifications for intervening can include things such as human rights concerns, while conservatives can justify isolationism by emphasizing nationalistic ideas and slogans, such as “America first.”
Make no mistake, the partisan state of American politics does play a role. Democrats ferociously criticized President Bush’s decision to enter Iraq, but offered no significant criticism of President Obama’s war-waging methods. Republicans, meanwhile, seem poised to allow President Trump to bypass Congress on military force authorization, something they attacked President Obama for doing in the very recent past.
Foreign policy has become perhaps the easiest area for presidents to assert their vision. With an increasing amount of military force being directed without the authorization of Congress over recent years, presidents have a significantly easier time shaping foreign policy than domestic policy.
Short-term intervention can earn a president a bump in support, as President Trump enjoyed from all sides of the political spectrum following the Syria bombing, but long-term conflicts almost invariably wear on the public’s approval.
A large portion of President Trump’s base has already begun to move out from under him, as they believe the decision to bomb Syria was a betrayal of his “America first” promise. Some of his active and adamant supporters have vocalized their frustration. Given the already delicate nature of President Trump’s approval among the larger American public, his full transformation to a war hawk could ultimately sink his cause and his presidency.