Though the most recent chemical attack launched by Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria is possibly the worst, it is by no means the first in a series of human rights violations and atrocities that have been committed by the regime. Since 2011, an estimated 470,000 Syrians have been killed in the country’s civil war, with a total of 11.5 percent of the national population wounded or killed. The Syrian people have not only endured violent acts, but have suffered and died from food shortages and the loss of reliable healthcare, vaccines, and basic sanitation measures.
As the war has raged, more than 4.8 million refugees have fled from their homes to avoid the ravages of this ongoing conflict. These displaced survivors of war and destruction have, in many cases, crossed the Mediterranean in unsafe conditions in order to escape Syria only to reach countries that hesitate to offer them asylum. The five countries that have taken on the brunt of the burden of accepting these people within their borders—Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt—struggle to offer refugees anything other than a life of abject poverty. For example, 93 percent of the Syrian refugees who live in cities in Jordan live below the poverty line.
The US government has abstained from any kind of direct involvement until now in an attempt to avoid yet another intervention in the Middle East. Government officials have placed this objective of avoidance above their moral duty to respond to the growing humanitarian plight. But at long last, the US finally intervened under the man least expected to intervene, the man who campaigned on a strong anti-interventionist message and who ridiculed Obama’s empty “red line” threat: President Donald Trump.
While he was running for president, Trump, with his motto of “America First,” promised voters that he would shift the focus of American politics from the realm of international relations back to primarily domestic issues. Regardless of the feasibility of this promise in an interconnected and rapidly globalizing world, Trump made it a hallmark of his campaign. He strongly and frequently criticized American involvement in the Iraq War by using this platform of anti-interventionism, and extended the same logic to the problem of Syria. Ever the maverick, Trump diverged from traditional Republican Party neoconservatism with his similarly founded attacks on the utility and economic fairness of NATO, further stressing an agenda hinged upon domestic issues and American success. His wildcard tendencies went beyond mere policy differences with the Republican Party. Trump went so far as to praise the infamous Saddam Hussein for how he handled the issue of terrorism, namely by ignoring human rights and concerns and, in the words of Trump, “throwing a little gas.” Yet we now know that seeing footage of Assad using precisely the same technique against Syrian civilians moved Trump to bomb a Syrian airbase. The irony of this contrast is palpable, and illustrates the unpredictability of the man who now heads up the American military forces.
Trump’s Twitter account further highlights the hypocrisy of his latest military action, regardless of whether the attack was objectively just or not. His tweet from 2013, “What will we get for bombing Syria besides more debt and a possible long term conflict? Obama needs Congressional approval” now appears astonishingly hypocritical. This represents a clear flip-flop on the necessity of congressional approval in wartime matters and the role that the US ought to play in this ongoing conflict. In another tweet from 2013, Trump called intervention in Syria “stupid” but added that if the US was going to continue its involvement, then his policy advice would be to “SHOOT FIRST AND TALK LATER!” The irrationality of this so-called advice coming from the man who is now commander-in-chief should have American citizens worried about the unreliability of the president and his black-and-white conception of wartime politics.
Trump condemned American involvement in Syrian affairs continuously throughout the Obama administration, and such criticism strengthened his anti-interventionist stance in the eyes of his voters. During the 2016 election cycle, Trump mentioned the Iraq War on a number of occasions during presidential debates in comparison to Syria, and used this comparison to further emphasize his opposition to intervention. Yet for a man whose motto is “America First,” Trump has proven to be much more involved with outside forces such as Russia, and now in Syria, than his base likely expected.
Trump has alienated important components of his voting base, namely alt-right groups, by choosing to interfere overseas in the Syrian conflict. The figurehead of the American alt-right movement, Steve Bannon, has a reputation for wanting to leave well enough alone overseas, and to focus political capital on accomplishing his highly conservative agenda at home. However much such ideological groups may appreciate brute military action, they also have a strong isolationist bent that can be traced back through other far-right movements, such as the Know-Nothing party of the 19th century. Although Trump attempted to counteract the backlash from his base that would follow such a brazen usage of executive military power by calling upon a religious, Christian obligation to help the needy “beautiful babies” in Syria, he has still managed to diminish the trust of his base in his commitment to their America First, anti-interventionist ideals.
The same isolationist voters who demand a wall on the border of the US and Mexico and harsher trade laws with China also dread the idea of yet another unending war in the Middle East funded by taxpayer money. Although Trump is trying to hide his obvious betrayal of his campaign promise to concentrate on domestic conservative issues, such as the deportation of undocumented immigrants previously protected under DACA, his base will likely not react very positively to intervention, especially in the troubled Middle East.
Even more hypocritically, the same president who was moved to decry the incident as something that “No child of God should ever have to suffer” and bomb Syria, has not yet been inspired to relax his policy regarding refugees. Trump apparently cares about protecting about one hundred Syrians from being killed in a gas attack, but cannot bring himself extend this compassion and outrage to the millions of Syrian refugees facing starvation, deprivation, disease and violence. Outrageously, he is still not willing to actively offer safe harbor for refugees fleeing from their war-torn homeland.
Trump’s attack on the Syrian airbase has not only proven to be practically ineffective, but is also deeply hypocritical. It is hypocritical on two counts: first, it is in violation of everything he campaigned on, and second, it runs counter to his inhumane refusal to accept Syrian refugees. His loyal alt-right, deeply conservative voters should feel betrayed by this latest action on the part of the Trump administration, as it contradicts to the many promises he made throughout his campaign to push for a more isolationist vision of America. Trump’s liberal critics should not simply sit back and feel vindicated either, but should use this moment of weakness to push for an immigration policy for refugees that more properly reflects this new concern for the fate of Syrian children. Having a president who has clearly revealed his flippant attitude regarding the importance of maintaining a stable moral compass to guide his actions should be concerning to Americans and people around the world of every political bent. Trump went into his campaign refusing to confront the problem Syria poses to international politics, and seems to have no clear-cut course of action regarding how to handle the situation now. Such instability and impulsive decision-making from a president, whose decisions all too often have not only national but international consequences, poses a threat to American national security, as well to our reputation abroad.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Kate Healy is a third year majoring in Political Science major, and possibly double minoring in Spanish and History. Last summer, she interned with State Senator Heather Steans in Chicago. On campus, she is a member of the Women in Public Service Program, New Americans, and Kappa Alpha Theta.