The Memo: Syria debate exposes fissures in Trump's circle

The Memo: Syria debate exposes fissures in Trump's circle
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNearly 300 former national security officials sign Biden endorsement letter DC correspondent on the death of Michael Reinoehl: 'The folks I know in law enforcement are extremely angry about it' Late night hosts targeted Trump over Biden 97 percent of the time in September: study MORE is widely expected to take action against Syria following a suspected chemical attack on Saturday that is being blamed on forces loyal to Bashar Assad.

But the debate is exposing fissures among Trump’s team about his broader foreign policy stances. 

On one side, conservatives worry that Trump’s isolationist instincts and unpredictable nature will give up hard-won gains in Syria and across the region, especially against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).


On the other, Trump loyalists argue that the president rightly eschews the neoconservative fondness for foreign intervention. 

“Strategically, much as I can sympathize with anyone who says the Middle East is just a vale of tears and we should stay out, we find that when we do that we get dragged back in on more adverse terms,” said Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of Defense who advocated for intervention in Iraq during President George W. Bush’s administration. 

“Our enemies certainly seemed to have figured out that they have interests there,” Wolfowitz added.

Others contend that moves in the direction favored by Wolfowitz would amount to a betrayal of the promises that got Trump elected, crystallized in his "America First" slogan.

“The centerpiece of ‘America First’ is that overseas engagement is only going to happen where there is a vital national security interest of the United States,” said one GOP operative who believes the situation in Syria does not meet that threshold.

Complicating the dynamic further is the arrival of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton, whose official first day in the job was Monday, is a hawkish figure who, like Wolfowitz, was closely identified with the war in Iraq under Bush.

Bolton has commented less about Syria in recent years than he has about other U.S. foes including North Korea, Iran and Russia. 

But given that the latter two are heavily involved in Syria as supporters of Assad, it is widely assumed that Bolton would favor a vigorous response.

In February, Bolton tweeted “it should surprise no-one that the Syrian government continues to develop new chemical weapons.” He added that the international community “hasn’t done enough to deter this continuing behavior.”

Wolfowitz praised Trump’s decision almost exactly one year ago to respond to a chemical attack from Syrian forces by launching a missile strike against an airfield. That, he said, was “a step in the right direction.”

But the GOP operative, who spoke on background in order to speak candidly, said that Trump was cut from very different cloth from Bush — and that many of the president’s supporters were acutely skeptical of the interventionist stances of figures such as Bush, Wolfowitz and Bolton. 

“I’d be shocked if Bolton was pushing military engagement. There's a whole part of the Trump movement that looks at Bolton with very suspicious eyes. Bolton is really auditioning here for a number of different audiences,” the source said.

Trump expressed horror on Monday about the apparent gas attack on the town of Douma. The president described it as “atrocious” and “horrible” during brief remarks to reporters before a Cabinet meeting.

He also indicated that a decision was imminent as to whether the U.S. would take action against Syria as a result. 

But, underlining Trump’s sometimes impulsive approach to such matters, it was only late last month that he said — to the apparent surprise of some of his own senior officials — that he wanted to exit Syria “very soon.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Trump digs in on conspiracy theory over bin Laden raid At 97, Bob Dole is still fighting for his country MORE (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic, said those comments had emboldened Assad — an assertion that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back against vigorously during Monday’s media briefing.

Still, Trump’s shifts and impetuosity discomforts some conservative thinkers as well as the more predictable liberal critics.

Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said, “At the very least, we should not be pulling out of Syria. We should be working to organize allies on the ground and to empower those who want to join the fight against both ISIS and Assad.”

Asked if she were content with Trump’s approach to the Middle East generally, Pletka say she was not.

“I think we need to engage more in Syria, more in Iran, more in Yemen,” she said. “The president has said that he is no Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJacobin Editor-at-Large: Valerie Jarrett's support for Citigroup executive's mayoral campaign 'microcosm' of Democrats' relationship with Wall Street Obama to stump for Biden in Philadelphia On India, the US must think bigger MORE when it comes to meeting these challenges. That remains to be seen.”

Liberal critics would disagree with Pletka and Trump’s characterization of Obama as weak on Syria or the Middle East generally. But some acknowledge that the challenges in Syria pose hard choices.

“Syria is a failing state that has not produced regime change,” said Rudy deLeon, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “As long as ISIS is defeated, or no longer consequential, do the Americans depart or is there some kind of stabilization effort?”

Wolfowitz acknowledged that the situation is difficult and that the U.S. had fewer options than it had several years ago. But he insisted that some kind of retaliation for the chemical attack is a strategic and moral necessity.

“We could do some good for suffering Syrians,” he said, “and at the same time make the Russians and Iranians pay a price.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.