Trump Shows He Is Willing to Act Forcefully, Quickly
President Donald Trump’s decision to order military strikes in Syria sets his presidency on a new and unpredictable course that is likely to shape his time in office.
Faced with his first major foreign-policy test—a moment that confronts every new president—Mr. Trump demonstrated a comfort with military action and a flexibility in approach that saw him change course not only on comments he made in the campaign but also on his policy toward Syria in just 48 hours after seeing gruesome photographic evidence from the Asssad regime’s chemical-weapons attack Tuesday.
His decision drew support from Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have long called for stronger U.S. action in Syria.
But with his message delivered both in missiles and in a presidential address from behind a podium at his private resort in Florida, Mr. Trump faces the difficult choice his predecessor and other world leaders have grappled with for years: Now what? It’s the question that repeatedly led President Barack Obama to decide against deeper military involvement in Syria.
Just three months into his presidency Mr. Trump will have to find his own answer. He has to confront a litany of risky unknowns.
It is unclear how the Assad regime, or its allies Russia and Iran, will react. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump intends to move the U.S. more forcefully into the Syrian conflict—committing the U.S. military to greater engagement in the Middle East—or whether he plans to hold back beyond sending a signal that the use of chemical weapons won’t be tolerated by the White House.
One message was clear: Mr. Trump is willing to use force and to make decisions swiftly when he is moved to act.
“Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow, brutal death for so many,” Mr. Trump said in a national address. “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”
It is a dramatic shift from Mr. Obama, who deliberated at length over military decisions and resisted years of calls for a deeper U.S. military involvement in Syria to help bring the conflict to an end. During his own election campaign, Mr. Trump suggested the U.S. should leave conflicts such as the one in Syria for other nations to resolve, including Russia.
The missile strikes mark an early turning point in Mr. Trump’s presidency. It is his first major military order as commander in chief. But it is also the first military decision of consequence that Americans and the world have seen him make after otherwise fitful first weeks as president, which have been marred by controversy and infighting in his own party.
Mr. Trump had in many ways compelled himself to act by vowing on Wednesday to retaliate for the gas attack. He had limited other options given Mr. Obama had cut a deal with the Assad regime, brokered by Russia, to remove its chemical-weapons stockpile instead of launching military action.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denounced Russia, saying it had failed to deliver on commitments in that deal to locate, secure and destroy the weapons.
“Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” said Mr. Tillerson, also in West Palm Beach for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, at a summit that hours earlier had been expected to revolve around North Korea and trade issues.
Mr. Tillerson said that Mr. Trump had reflected on the prior responses and “lack of responses” to Syria and concluded that the U.S. “could not, yet again, turn away” for fear of normalizing the use of chemical weapons.
He was flanked by Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who also noted the significance of Mr. Trump’s order.
“This was not a small strike,” he said. “What it does communicate is a big shift…This is the first time that the United States has taken direct military action against that regime.”
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