Thursday night, President Donald Trump launched the first major airstrike of his administration in Syria. The military action was a response to a recent chemical weapons attack carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime earlier this week. Former President Barack Obama controversially declined to launch a strike after a chemical weapons attack in 2013, even after warning that such action would cross a “red line.”
As such, many outlets today are contrasting President Trump’s foreign policy to that of Obama’s. Yet, the broad strokes of American military adventurism in the Middle East remains the same. Indeed, the more important lesson to draw from yesterday’s attack is not how different Trump is from previous presidents, but rather how similar he is.
As I noted at Rare a year ago, many prominent anti-interventionists backed Trump believing that he would finally end the era of endless war despite some very mixed statements on the campaign trail. Although he made a point to regularly criticize the War on Terror, Trump also promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS and described himself as the “most militaristic” presidential candidate.
In short, there were two Trumps on the campaign trail — the hawk and the dove. Last night, the hawk won the White House.
There is a larger lesson to be learned here than the typical retort to never trust a politician. That is to say, that once the Overton Window of political possibilities shifts in one direction, it is very difficult — nay, almost impossible — to shift it back.
To explain, the Overton Window is a concept named after its originator, Joe Overton of the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy. Overton asserted that in any given time, there is only a small range of policies that are politically feasible.
Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success.
This is a very sad truth in the case of foreign policy. As much Presidents Obama and Trump tried to distance themselves from the neoconservative norm, their administrations seemed to have embraced similar policies.
The good news, however, is that the Overton Window applies as equally to good policies as it does to bad. Just as the Trump administration will have difficulty curbing American interventionism abroad, they will also find it all but impossible to revert other policies like immigration protections and marijuana legalization.
Just consider President Trump’s first few weeks in office. Despite talk of deporting millions of immigrants on the campaign trail, President Trump has not marked a major sea change in policy so far. DACA is still in place, his travel bans are tied up in court challenges, and it’s looking like the border wall will take more time and effort than originally imagined.
Furthermore, despite hints that Attorney General Jeff Sessions would crack down on states who have legalized marijuana, no such major enforcement pushes have been made. In fact, major pushes are currently being made in 14 states to fully legalize the drug.
In short, Americans shouldn’t expect radical change overnight on almost any policy. The bittersweet truth is that no one man — not even a president — can change everything. It takes a sustained movement of advocates for years to make real change.