Ever since Donald Trump unleashed 59 Tomahawk missiles in Syria in response to the Assad regime’s sarin gas attack on civilians, frustration has been intense on the right. There is total confusion about just what Trump supports. Conflicting views from Rex Tillerson, Nikki Haley, and H.R. McMaster over last weekend veered from arguments that the strike was a one-time tactical move and that the administration was not averse to allowing Assad to stay in power, to later arguing that no peace or stability could take place without his removal.
Among conservatives, conflict is also rampant. Three different groups are fighting among themselves, each hoping that their vision is the one Trump really supports.
First, you have the neocons and their allies, people like Max Boot and Gabriel Schoenfeld; then you have the non-interventionists like the writers and editors of The American Conservative; and finally, pure opportunists who switch along with Trump and support whatever his most recent tweet or position is.
To keep his anti-intervention base supportive, the Trump team came up with a new rationale that would perhaps satisfy those who believed Trump’s policy was “America First.” Hence no interventions abroad would ever take place unless the situation directly affected America’s national security. Now anti-interventionists are being told that Trump’s actions are in the national interest because ISIS or other terrorist groups might get ahold of the sarin gas.
The controversial White House aide dealing with national security, Sebastian Gorka, said on Breitbart News Daily, a radio program, that the raid on the Syrian airfield “is not a full-throated war deployment. It is a surgical strike using missiles.” It was only meant to tell Assad that the use of chemical warfare was not a permissible use of his power, and nothing more. The clear message is that the now skeptical neo-isolationists should back the action, knowing that it was limited, and rejoice in knowing that “America is back, America is leading, and America will not be a feckless, spineless non-actor in the international community. Those days are over.” His words may temporarily have had the intended effect, but since he had said them, they quickly became irrelevant.
Such talk is having an effect on the Mercer family, longtime funders of Bannon and Breitbart who also helped finance the Trump campaign. According to Rick Wilson, the Mercers are “already restive and nervous that Trump has been co-opted by (((them))) [the establishment] and lured into being a more conventional president.”
One way to see how much of Trump’s core constituency views the airstrike on Syria and the potential rupture with Russia is to go to alt-right and others conservative websites and read the type of negative attacks on Trump that are beginning to appear. These all serve one major purpose: they can be shown to Trump by Bannon and his allies to scare him that this one limited raid was enough to cause former core supporters to jump ship.
As for Breitbart itself, on Tuesday, it ran a lead column defending the new tough anti-Putin stance, and praising Trump’s new position especially in comparison to the previous administrations of Obama and Bush 43 before him, which made some tough noises but quickly pursued a policy of appeasement. No more, it seems, is the site created by Steve Bannon urging a new cooperation with Putin’s Russia and calling for it to be an ally with the United States in fighting ISIS.
The toughest negative article critical of Trump came from filmmaker Ronald F. Maxwell, (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals, and Copperhead) who wrote in Breitbart that Trump had promised that “our military would be used only in the defense of our own country or our closest allies.” Maxwell, who is now filming in China, told me he did not consult anyone in the White House about submitting the article; he wrote it on his own because of his anger at the raid, and the publication ran it immediately. That column, however, ran a few days ago, and one must wonder whether had they just received it, the editors would have featured it.
Trump “ran and won on a platform summarized by the slogan America First,” Maxwell noted, which meant “no more wars of choice; no military interventions to liberate other countries, to intervene in so-called ‘humanitarian’ crusades, to force regime change, to coercively spread democracy, or to take sides in other people’s wars or civil wars.”
Maxwell’s position reminds one of that taken by the pre-World War II America First Committee, whose members, composed of people both on the left and the right, (Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader, and the conservative aviator Charles Lindbergh) united to oppose armed intervention in the European war for much the same reasons advanced today by Maxwell. America would and could not be the “policeman of the world,” Maxwell wrote, which meant no intervention in “intractable conflicts” that would never be settled.
Maxwell also argued that we do not know who dropped the poison gas, although on site observers saw that it could only have been Assad’s planes that used the sarin gas on Syrian civilians. I wonder what those who agree with him think today, given the release by the Trump administration of the intelligence proving that the bombs were dropped by Assad’s air force. Maxwell’s goal was to prevent the Trump administration from engaging in a “neo-Cold War.” Now, however, Maxwell argues that Trump justified the attack “with words that could have been spoken by Hillary Clinton.” In other words, Trump had betrayed him and many of those who voted and worked for him. Maxwell’s fear is that Trump might now be in bed with “his most ardent critics,” having chosen “the path of America last.” Harsh words indeed from one of Trump’s most vociferous supporters, who was close to Trump the entire campaign, and who was responsible for Dave Brat’s victory in Virginia in which Eric Cantor failed to get the primary nomination.
Maxwell’s views are essentially the same as those of Robert W. Merry, the historian who is now editor of the Buchananite American Conservative. What Trump had done was “not the foreign policy Trump campaigned on,” he wrote. Merry went so far as to write that Trump “is looking more and more like a phony.” Indeed, he writes that his foreign policy is now “more aggressive and adventuresome than Obama’s.” He reminded his readers that Trump had said “that joining the struggle against Syrian President Bashar-al Assad would put the United States on the side of the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations.” He had promised to “work with Russia toward an end to the horrendous Syrian bloodshed.” Now, he and others see a very different Trump.
Having promised that he “would buck the conventional wisdom of the elites,” Merry writes, Trump was now doing precisely what the globalists and interventionists desired. Like Maxwell, he argues that Trump hadn’t even given Americans “actual proof that Assad was in fact the perpetrator” of the sarin attack. Now, Merry concludes, the United States is “seemingly set to embark on yet another adventure in regime change.” At least, Merry argues, Trump should have shown his base “political gratitude,” instead of allowing the old elites and interventionists to start “taking over his administration.” Merry now fears Trump has no real principles; that he is just “winging it,” and is not, as some of his supporters thought, “a man of ironclad conviction.”
True, there are conservatives who are sticking with Trump and have responded favorably to his Syria action. David Horowitz, who has written a best-selling book on Trump’s agenda, has fiercely come to the President’s defense, calling the strike “an international game-changer,” one that has disproven leftist charges that Trump is Putin’s puppet and, given support by key Democrats, proves that Trump is not out of the mainstream. Horowitz, however, does not address the arguments of that part of the Trump base that feels betrayed.
Similarly, at PJ Media, Roger L. Simon writes “that Trump is doing precisely what Obama should have done after his famous ‘red line’ against chemical weapons was violated. Trump took it to Assad. Obama did nothing.” It means to Simon that “America as world leader is back.” Neither take up the irony that effectively, they are making the same case as many of the neocons they have fiercely opposed, such as the editors of The Weekly Standard and Commentary.
The truth is that at present, no one knows what position Trump will take on Syria or on Russia or Iran soon. Will he move further to taking the kind of steps advocated by Hillary Clinton, such as creating no-fly zones and safe spaces for refugees, or will he make this a one-time raid and then revert to the policies he enunciated during the campaign? For the moment, it seems that the Mattis and McMaster group is in the ascendant, and that Trump is mostly listening to them. As of today, it seems that the anti-Putin position has been decided upon, and the overture to the Russian leader is finished.
Knowing Trump, however, this could change at the drop of a pin. In Wednesday’s Observer, Brian Darling writes that “If President Trump morphs from an ‘America First’ foreign policy to interventionism that would fit perfectly into a Hillary Clinton or John McCain Administration, then he should expect a large swath of his supporters to be despondent and to walk away from supporting him.” Perhaps Trump is listening to these warnings. On Monday, Trump told Michael Goodwin of the New York Post : “No, we’re not going into Syria.” This comes one day after Tillerson and Haley were supporting regime change. No one can predict what is coming next from Trump and his administration.