Why, after a campaign of promising to keep America out of unnecessary foreign wars, has Donald Trump suddenly started hurling cruise missiles around the globe? Part of the answer, as I laid out yesterday, is that the Washington advisor class is inherently biased in favor of a muscular foreign policy, and some of them are whispering in Trump’s ear right now, drowning out dissenting voices like Steve Bannon.
But there’s something else at work here. Put yourself in Donald Trump’s fastidiously shined shoes for a moment. You’re deeply sensitive to what you hear on cable news and for the past two months it’s been an unceasing drumbeat of bad news, with Obamacare flopping, the refugee pause foiled, your poll numbers in a crater, and wall-to-wall coverage of accusations that your campaign colluded with Russian secret services to land you in the White House.
You’ve been told by everyone that the first 100 days of a presidency are the most crucial, that this is your honeymoon period, the time when your political window is open widest. You look back at the energetic FDR and even Barack Obama with his major stimulus package, and worry that you haven’t measured up. Because you’re Donald Trump, you’re incapable of blaming yourself, and so you grow frustrated with those around you: Paul Ryan, the Freedom Caucus, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus. Some of them feel your wrath, but the question lingers: how do you jump-start your presidency?
You can’t rely on Congress, as the GOP caucus’s feuding factions have amply demonstrated. You’re also increasingly wary of domestic initiatives, which, even when they’re executive orders that circumvent the legislative squawking, have ended up hamstrung in the court system. You need something that the executive branch can do unilaterally, with you firmly in the cockpit, something that will rally your supporters and act as rocket fuel for your sagging poll numbers.
And so you turn your gaze abroad.
Trump might be derided as a know-nothing by the tongue-clicking mandarins in Washington, but he’s a peerless salesman, especially when the product is himself. Now, in Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-un, he’s found the villains for his pitch, the equivalent of the black-masked burglar in the ADT commercials who can and will carry a mountain of electronics out of your house unless you invest in an alarm system. He’s also got those videos of cruise missiles being launched, which have been replayed masturbatorily throughout the media. Suddenly, he’s being characterized as that most coveted of presidential descriptors: “decisive.” Criticism is limited to a small band of legislators and writers, none of whom have gotten much traction over the past week.
None of this is to suggest that Trump is motivated solely by politics. It’s also not to say that the Syria strike was some sort of “Wag the Dog” move to distract from his Russia scandal, as the ridiculous Lawrence O’Donnell recently submitted. But all foreign policy contains some dosage of political consideration, and for Trump, posturing as the world’s new torch of liberty is a good look for his first 100 days, even if it’s a total U-turn from his campaign. And if you can juice your reputation even further by dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in history on an ISIS underground, all the better—maybe in doing so you’ll even spook the North Koreans.
The problem is, as I’ve written before, none of this is likely to work. Our adversaries are hardening, not softening, culminating in that dead-man-walking press conference yesterday with Rex Tillerson and Sergey Lavrov, the most vivid evidence yet that Russian-American relations have hit a nadir. Trump is trading some short-term glory for piercing headaches down the road, which is usually what happens when you follow the neoconservatives.
I hope he comes to his senses. The first 100 days is a bullshit metric anyway, originating in a period of crisis under a Democratic president who wildly overstepped his constitutional bounds. Far better than a flurry of ill-considered action is caution in the service of long-term policy success. That strategy might have avoided the Obamacare repeal debacle; it could still avail Trump on foreign policy.