The images were heartbreaking: Children gasping and choking for breath, their mouths foaming. A grief-stricken father, cradling the lifeless bodies of his two children, swaddled in white blankets. But they were also familiar, a harrowing flashback to 2013, when the Syrian government unleashed the last major poison gas attack on its own people.
This time, though, a new U.S. president was seeing the pictures and absorbing the horror.
President Donald Trump has always taken pride in his readiness to act on instinct, whether in real estate or reality television. On Thursday, an emotional Trump took the greatest risk of his young presidency, ordering a retaliatory missile strike on Syria for its latest chemical weapons attack. In a dizzying 48 hours, he upended a foreign policy doctrine based on putting America first and avoiding messy conflicts in distant lands.
Trump’s advisers framed his decision in the dry language of international norms and strategic deterrence. In truth, it was an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his — and that turning away, to him, was not an option.
“I will tell you,” he said to reporters in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday, “that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”
Appearing again the next evening at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, Trump said that President Bashar Assad of Syria had “choked out the life of innocent men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
It was difficult to reconcile the anguished president with the snarky critic of U.S. engagement who advised President Barack Obama, from the comfort of private life, not to strike Syria after a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus three years ago.
“President Obama, do not attack Syria,” Trump said on Twitter in September 2013. “There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your ‘powder’ for another (and more important) day!”
As a candidate, Trump said that forcing Assad out of power was not as urgent a priority for the United States as vanquishing the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. He claimed, somewhat erroneously, that he always opposed the Iraq War. He criticized Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for plunging heedlessly into foreign entanglements, drawn by misplaced idealism and the substitution of other peoples’ interests for America’s.
“One day, we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians,” Trump said during his major foreign policy speech in April 2016. “The next day, we’re watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls and absolutely falls apart. Lives lost, massive moneys lost. The world is a different place.”
“We’re a humanitarian nation,” he continued, “but the legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray, a mess. We’ve made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before.”
The contrast between Trump and his predecessor could not be starker. In the early days of his presidency, Obama made the case for America’s moral responsibility to intervene militarily on humanitarian grounds. “Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later,” he said, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
Yet when Syria slipped into a deadly civil war, Obama focused more on the costs of intervention than the risks of inaction. Even after Assad’s forces killed hundreds in a poison gas attack in August 2013, Obama did not carry out a threatened missile strike because, he said, he had not gotten Congress to sign off on it.
Trump’s action, only 77 days into his term, hardly settles the question of when he might intervene in future crises. He has not articulated criteria for humanitarian interventions and, even if he did, it is not clear that he would stick to his standards any more than Obama did.
The president’s advisers were clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion that Trump was acting impulsively.
“I do not view it as an emotional reaction at all,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He said that Trump had looked back on Obama’s decision not to carry out a strike and decided that the United States “could not yet again turn away, turn a blind eye.”
Tillerson and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, laid out a case that sounded eerily similar to Obama’s three years earlier, when he drew his fateful “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. These weapons violated the rules of war and the Chemical Weapons Convention, they said. Allowing Syria to wield them with impunity risked normalizing them, and might embolden others to use them.
The president’s aides described a deliberative process with meetings of the National Security Council, military options presented by the Pentagon and a classified briefing for Trump held under a tent erected in Mar-a-Lago to secure the communications with Washington. They spoke of phone calls to U.S. allies, consultations with lawmakers, and the diplomatic engagement that would follow the Tomahawk cruise missiles.
What is clear, however, is that Trump reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria. And that reaction propelled him into a sequence of actions that will change the course of his presidency. Trump’s improvisational style has sometimes seemed ill-suited to the gravity of his office. In this case, it helped lead him to make the gravest decision a commander-in-chief can make.
“I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that,” the president said of Syria on Wednesday. “It is now my responsibility.”
Trump’s action, only 77 days into his term, hardly settles the question of when he might intervene in future crises.