SINGAPORE – What is surprising about last week’s U.S. air strikes in Syria is not the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the launching of missiles — although it adds spice that he apparently did so while hosting the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago
With his appointment of generals in key national security positions as well as his budget proposals, Trump had already signaled a more muscular, military-oriented approach to foreign policy.
And what that meant in practice has been evident since he came to office in January via the greater U.S. military engagement in Yemen.
What is surprising is that Trump — days after he had declared that he was president of the United States, not president of the world — acted to uphold international law and packaged it in terms of compassion.
For Trump, the triggering event may clearly have been that he was taken aback by the horror of the Syrian chemical weapons attack (the death of “beautiful babies.”)
The U.S. strikes were obviously also designed to show that Trump was not beholden to Russia.
Trump may not have a clearly formulated policy framework. Or maybe he does, but wants to keep everybody guessing. He has repeatedly stated that he would not broadcast his intentions to the world.
Whichever it is, with his Syria move, Trump is keeping China on its toes with regard to North Korea. He is also keeping Iran on it toes, particularly given the chances that President Hassan Rouhani could lose the forthcoming May election to a hard-liner.
As it stands, all the predictions of a U.S. withdrawal from its role as the guarantor of a world order and of a rush into U.S. isolationism are proving premature, even if one is seeing a rollback on liberal U.S. values such as pushing a human rights agenda.
But even here, Trump is confounding his critics. Witness the liberal (!) voices in the United States who now find themselves applauding Trump’s bombing action, where President Barack Obama, their own standard bearer and his eternal caution, drove them to despair.
If much of Trump’s initial period in the White House was marked by a sense of insecurity and defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election, the missile strikes that enjoyed bipartisan and broad international support may have put that behind him.
That has implications for the impact of U.S. investigations into Russian meddling in the U.S. elections.
Trump’s turn to the more “classical” style of U.S. interventionist policies also has an impact on the populists in Europe. Their isolationism-driven hopes for electoral success in France and Germany were in many ways inspired by Trump’s success.
The instinctive liking they took to Trump is now tempered by the reality shock that he at least acts like a classical-style American internationalist.
Much as they do not want to recognize it, Trump is acting like a global jury — where judge, jury and executioner are one and the same, i.e., the U.S. government.
That puts the likes of French populist leader Marie le Pen in a real bind. Despite her initial criticism of the strikes, she may not want to stray too far away from his muscular policies, for fear of not being described as accomodationist and a foreign policy weakling.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an award-winning journalist.