One week before the 2016 presidential election, Chris Matthews posed a question on his MSNBC program. Why, Matthews asked, was Donald Trump’s campaign so feckless? Why wasn’t he on the stump every day asking voters questions like, “Do you like this string of stupid wars from Iraq to Libya to Syria?” Such a strategy, Matthews suggested, would provide the country with a clear choice: If “you want to keep all this the way it is, vote for Hillary Clinton,” but voting for Trump would “shake the system to its roots.”
Last night, Trump’s administration launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield in retaliation for the Syrian military’s reported murder of its citizens with chemical weapons. The strikes further enmesh the nation in a civil war with no easy solutions.
By itself, the attack is the sort of “pinprick” that Republicans would likely scorn if it had been ordered by a Democratic president, threatening neither the survival of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime nor his ability to use such weapons in the future. If, as seems likely, this fails to change Assad’s behavior, it could lead to an unpredictable, escalating series of military actions against a close Russian strategic ally. There's little indication that the White House has considered the potential cost of that fight or who would lead Syria if Assad falls.
It seems like Trump is leading us into what Matthews might call a “stupid war.” And that comes after escalations in U.S. uses of military force in Iraq and Yemen, both at the cost of civilian loss of life.
To be clear, the argument that Trump was some sort of non-interventionist dove -- a dead letter since his ascendency to the presidency, especially in light of last night’s attack -- made no sense at the time.
Trump supported U.S. military attacks on Iraq and Libya before he told the world he was against them. During the campaign, he said that we “have no choice” but to deploy tens of thousands of ground troops into Syria “to knock out ISIS,” backed military action against Iran, and refused to take using nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Europe off the table.
Beyond the garden-variety, off-the-cuff calls for military force, Trump has explicitly supported using the armed forces for war crimes. For years, he has said that we should “take” Iraq’s oil as a way to “pay ourselves back” for the invasion. He promised to kill the families of terrorists in order to defeat ISIS. He said that he would bring back banned interrogation techniques because “torture works,” and “only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work,” and terrorists “deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”
But somehow, as Trump and Clinton clinched their party’s nominations and the general election campaign began last spring, the political media’s savviest pundits were determined to cast the Republican as the race’s national security dove. By cherry-picking comments in which Trump presented himself as a foe of nation-building, misreading his attacks on bedrock U.S. foreign alliances as evidence of a coherent ideological framework, and ignoring his grotesque sabre-rattling and threats of violence, these journalists created a narrative that wandered far from reality.
Trump has not “demonstrated anywhere near the appetite for military engagement abroad that Clinton has,” New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler reported on April 21. He “wants the United States to spend less to underwrite NATO and has talked about withdrawing the American security umbrella from Asia, even if that means Japan and South Korea would acquire nuclear weapons to defend themselves.” Thus, Landler concluded, the election could “present voters with an unfamiliar choice: a Democratic hawk versus a Republican reluctant warrior.”
Over the next month, two of Landler’s colleagues expressed similar sentiments. Columnist Maureen Dowd declared that “On some foreign policy issues, the roles are reversed for the candidates and their parties. It’s Hillary the Hawk against Donald the Quasi-Dove.” According to Dowd, “Trump seems less macho than Hillary,” given that he “thought the invasion of Iraq was a stupid idea” (that isn’t true).
And Times senior editor of politics Carolyn Ryan struck a similar tone during an appearance on MSNBC, suggesting that Trump's foreign policy positions will "redraw the typical ideological lines."
With the Times taking the lead, the accolades for Trump’s purported dovishness piled up over the following months. Trump’s “Republican isolationism” would “ground the drones.” (Since taking office, Trump has actually sought to “make it easier for the CIA and the military to target terrorists with drone strikes, even if it means tolerating more civilian casualties.”) He could “be the military-industrial complex’s worst nightmare.” (He’s currently seeking a $54 billion increase in spending for the Defense Department.)
“On more than one issue, GOP's Trump sounds like a Democrat,” the Associated Press reported May 15. On national defense, “the billionaire businessman could even find himself running to the left of Hillary Clinton.”
Before the first 100 days of the Trump administration has ended, their isolationist dove has escalated U.S. fighting in at least three countries, with more trouble spots looming.
Just don’t expect them to learn anything from the experience.