APRIL 8, 2017 — The defiant outsider presidency of Donald Trump could go its own peculiar path for only so long before a crisis intervened, presenting a sudden test of competence. That moment happened when the Syrian government unleashed a poison gas attack on its own people.
Trump passed this first test, we’re relieved to report.
He condemned Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad’s barbarous act and acknowledged an important fact: “It is now my responsibility.” A day later, Trump ordered a missile attack on a Syrian air base in reprisal. It was proportional in response, stunning in swiftness, clear in its message that the civilized world won’t tolerate the use of outlawed chemical weapons.
Many such days of difficult decisions await Trump. The Syrian civil war is his complex problem to manage, as are relations with Russia and China, global terrorism, the North Korean nuclear threat, plus a heap of other dilemmas and calamities to come.
Is Trump up to the task? That’s a legitimate question for a president with no prior political leadership experience and a rash temperament.
Since taking office, he hasn’t approached the job with the strategic focus and seriousness of purpose being president obviously requires. Really, Trump hasn’t shifted from campaign mode. About 80 days into his tenure, he has seemed more interested in rehashing his election victory and teeing off on critics via Twitter than in embracing the details of being president. His spotty track record and poor approval ratings show it.
Trump’s goofs include: the rushed, sloppily imposed immigration ban (now hung up in the courts); the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to repeal and replace Obamacare as promised; and his outlandish accusations — of voter fraud and being wiretapped by President Barack Obama (among other fulminations from his Twitter feed. Much of the early momentum of Trump’s presidency has been drained away by the investigations into Russian meddling in the election, which led to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s ouster. If not for Russiagate, maybe Trump would have more public support, or perhaps it’s the opposite: There would be more focus on other shortcomings, such as his loopy promise to build a big border wall and get Mexico to pay for it.
Every president faces a steep learning curve. In terms of rookie mistakes, John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April of his first year. Trump’s errors have been frustrating to watch because they come laced with hubris. The president is cavalier about his lack of experience and resistant to running the country conventionally. His administration is much too thin on advice from wise people who understand Washington and the nuances of policy. One of his senior advisers is a political neophyte, Jared Kushner, his 36-year-old son-in-law. Another is conservative flamethrower Steve Bannon, who also has no governance cred.
Then came the first week of April. Trump’s pick for Supreme Court justice, Judge Neil Gorsuch, serpentined a fractured Senate to win confirmation Friday. And Trump made a perspective shift — the biggest of his time in office — from laying the blame for Syria’s mess on Obama to taking a stand by attacking the Assad regime. It’s worth noting that the three members of Trump’s administration most responsible for coordinating the Tomahawk attack are three of his ablest and most experienced: Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Bannon’s influence is on the wane; he’s been removed from the National Security Council’s influential principals committee.
An order to use military force is a solemn act that confers no immediate or enduring gravitas. That will have to come from Trump’s performance going forward. Our country needs its president to act with purpose and principle. Just as the world needs America to be a moral leader and a beacon of freedom. Let Trump draw the right lesson from the success of his Syrian missile barrage.