Donald Trump’s decision to authorise an airbase controlled by the Syrian military marks a major shift in strategy for what must surely be the most vocally isolationist President since the Second World War.
This is a man who not only attacked his predecessors for their misadventures in the Middle East – a common enough pastime for Republicans and liberals alike – but even threatened to withdraw support for NATO members who aren’t pulling their weight.
Whilst this u-turn seems unlikely to rile the President’s crucial blue-collar constituencies, most of whom are far more focused on jobs – it’s certainly angered that vocal element of Trump’s fanbase which sympathises with Vladimir Putin.
It may be that the images coming out of Syria’s civil war really did push the President into a u-turn on its own. But it’s also not hard to see how an admirer of the Putin school of statecraft would be led to taking this sort of step.
After all, the Russian President has carved his country a revived role on the world stage. Despite the Russian economy still lagging far behind its western counterparts they have still managed to get away with armed land grabs in Georgia and Ukraine, and are now throwing their weight around in international theatres such as Syria.
What Putin seems to have, and his opponents to lack, is the will for confrontation.
His successes rest on the inevitable imbalance that occurs when one side is prepared to commit troops and the other isn’t. In the past couple of years he’s not only watched Barack Obama drawing and re-drawing his ‘red lines’ over Syria, but seen both the US and the UK fail to back up the assurances they offered Ukraine in 1994 when they persuaded it to give up its nuclear weapons stockpile.
Who’s going to value a ‘territorial guarantee’ from the major NATO powers if the only visible consequence of somebody breaking it is those same powers pointing out that it has, in fact, been broken?
Trump knew that isolationism played well with a war-weary US electorate. But he also wants to be taken seriously abroad, particularly by North Korea, and if he really is a fan of Putin he’ll have seen how little leverage isolationism (and, he may come to realise, protectionism) give a statesman.
If this is a strategy then the fact it seems to have been a unilateral decision by the President may make it more effective, as it makes it harder for foreign governments to judge how America will respond to provocations.
Of course it may also blow up in the White House’s face.We should resist the urge to project onto Trump’s haphazardness any sort of master plan, like the people who thought the slipshod implementation of his travel ban was a deliberate road-test for a coup d’etat.
In the end, Trump may gravitate towards more traditional right-wing positions on trade and foreign intervention for the simple reason that they give him more opportunities to cut a grand figure on the world stage: signing deals, killing bad guys – and being taken seriously by Putin.
Some prominent Republican critics like Marco Rubio have “rallied to him”, as Paul explained yesterday, and the LA Times reports that the President finds himself on the same side as “the GOP’s more traditional hawks”. If he keeps this up we might yet see a very different administration to the one he promised as a candidate.