WASHINGTON — In his new book “Fear,” Bob Woodward recounts that in April 2017, after President Trump saw images of dead Syrian children with their mouths foaming from a sarin attack, he called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and issued an order: Get me a plan for a military strike to take out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Let’s f — ing kill him!” Trump told Mattis, according to the book. “Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f — ing lot of them.” Mattis, Woodward writes, assured the president that “he would get right on it.” But as soon as Mattis hung up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that.” Instead, Woodward says, the defense secretary gave Trump options for more-limited strikes.
Today, as Assad menaces 3 million civilians in the last rebel stronghold, the Idlib province, it’s clear that Trump’s instinct was right. We should have taken out the Syrian dictator last year.
When Trump was elected in 2016, many worried that he would usher in a new age of American isolationism and withdrawal. That hasn’t happened. Trump has pursued a foreign policy that is not only not isolationist but also a significant improvement over his predecessor’s.
In Syria, while Trump did not eliminate Assad, he did enforce President Barack Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons, punishing violations not once but twice — and restoring America’s credibility on the world stage. Last week, Trump launched the U.S.-led coalition’s assault on the Islamic State’s last stronghold on the Syrian-Iraqi border, which will eliminate its physical caliphate. And unlike Obama, Trump is not taking America’s boot off the terrorists’ necks. The Post reports that the president has approved a new strategy that “indefinitely extends the military effort” in Syria until a government acceptable to all Syrians is established and all Iranian military and proxy forces are driven out. Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, a die-hard isolationist, recently asked: “Is Trump Going Neocon in Syria?”
In Israel, Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which he recognized as the country’s capital — something three of his predecessors promised, but failed, to do. He also withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and refocused U.S. efforts in the Middle East on shoring up relations with allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia instead of courting Iran.
In Afghanistan, after a careful deliberative process in which Trump (correctly) pressed his generals for answers to tough questions, the president reversed his campaign position favoring a troop pull-out and sent additional forces, with no timetable for withdrawal.
In Turkey, Trump is taking a hard line with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime, imposing tariffs as the Turkish lira has gone into free fall. Trump’s move was intended to punish Erdogan for his continued detention of an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and followed his threats against U.S. forces in Syria and his plans to buy an S-400 advanced air-defense system from Moscow.
Trump has also taken a surprisingly tough line with Russia. He approved a massive arms and aid package for Ukraine, expelled 60 Russian diplomats and authorized new sanctions against Moscow at least four times for: (1) interfering in U.S. elections, (2) violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, (3) launching a chemical-weapon attack against a Russian national in Britain and (4) violating North Korea sanctions. And the Trump administration recently warned Russia that it would face “total economic isolation” if Moscow backed the Assad regime’s assault in Idlib. Trump’s policies more than make up for his disastrous Helsinki news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July.
On North Korea, Trump issued credible threats of military action, which brought Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table. The chances of successful denuclearization are slim, but every other approach by Trump’s predecessors has failed. And there is reason for hope that Trump will not sign a bad deal, because he set a very high bar for a good deal when he withdrew from Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran.
The list of good foreign-policy moves goes on. Trump has taken a strong stand against the narco-dictatorship in Venezuela, and his administration even considered supporting coup plotters seeking to remove the Maduro regime. He strengthened NATO by getting allies to kick in billions more toward the alliance’s collective security. He declared war on the International Criminal Court, which purports to have jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers and citizens even though America is not a signatory to the treaty creating the ICC.
Liberals might not like any of these developments, but long-standing policy goals of conservative internationalists are being achieved. There may be chaos in the Trump White House, but so far at least the chaos is producing pretty good results.
Marc A. Thiessen is a columnist with The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter, marcthiessen.