By pounding a Syrian air base with nearly 60 cruise missiles, Donald Trump created for himself a number of political and foreign policy risks that threaten to alter his still-young presidency.
Just shy of his 80th day in office, the populist “America-first” president — should he entangle the United States into the complex Syrian conflict — could see his record-low approval ratings fall even further, while also finding himself in the same Middle East quicksand that his two predecessors found so stymying.
After Gallup’s daily tracking poll of his approval rating hovered in the 30s for much of last week, including a low of 35 percent, it climbed to 41 percent on Wednesday against an improved disapproval rating of 53 percent. Both figures are historical dismal for a commander in chief still in his first-100 days “honeymoon” period, and the prospect of another Middle East conflict could negatively affect both.
Senior administration officials reportedly called the Tomahawk strikes a “one-off.” But as George W. Bush and Barack Obama learned, the region has a way of drawing American presidents in deeper and deeper once the first U.S. munition has been fired.
Trump, perhaps sensing a skeptical response from the American people, appealed to their humanity in a statement Thursday night from his golf resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where he is hosting his Chinese counterpart.
“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many,” Trump said.
“Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror,” he said. “Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.”
But by striking Syria, even after the gruesome images of dead infants and children played on cable news for 48 hours, an unpopular president risked a slide into a broader conflict that not even his base appears to support.
An poll conducted last August by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that while 72 percent of those surveyed at the time support U.S. airstrikes there, they wanted them to target Islamic extremists groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Fifty-two percent supported the notion of creating and maintaining no-fly zones in Syria, which would require taking out Assad’s air defenses.
No fly-zones would have to be set up should Trump, as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested might be next, opt to create “safe zones” there to shield civilians from the ongoing conflict.
”We’ve got to make sure we’re always doing what we can to protect our nation,” Spicer said on Air Force One en route to Florida. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t support efforts like safe zones throughout Syria to make sure we do what we can for their people.”
No-fly zones likely would include U.S. and coalition — including from some Arab countries — warplanes. But, to be sure, the American Navy and Air Force would do the heavy lifting. And that would put them in daily contact with Russian fighter jets and troops, increasing the risks for Trump of a misunderstanding or miscalculation, like when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 all-weather attack aircraft over its airspace.
Should U.S. and Russian forces engage — or even shoot at one another — Trump would find himself embroiled in a military controversy with a country his campaign associates are under federal and congressional investigation for possible nefarious collusion. He also campaigned on establishing warmer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Based on early reaction from Russia over Thursday night’s strikes, the relationship is newly strained. Any mishap in Syria would likely sink a major Trump campaign pledge.
To avoid that, the new U.S. commander in chief will lean heavily on his general-turned-defense secretary, James Mattis, and the military’s chain of command — all the way down to the pilots in fighter jets making split-second decisions.
To that end, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters Thursday night that the Trump administration followed long-standing protocols to avoid a Russian response.
“There are military deconfliction agreements in place with the Russian military,” Tillerson said, “and our military did operate under and in accordance with those deconfliction agreements in coordinating this particular attack.”
Trump also risks retaliation by Iran, which can, through surrogates, target U.S. troops already operating in Iraq and Syria. The same is true of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which would target Israel or other American allies in response to American missile strikes in the Middle East.
Back home, Trump’s lack of prior notification of lawmakers threatens his already tenuous relationship with Congress.
But should he not keep them more informed and seek their approval for additional action, he risks further souring his relations with Democrats — and even Republicans, many of whom supported then-President Barack Obama’s decision in 2013 to seek congressional approval before launching strikes in Syria that never occurred when lawmakers were unable to agree on the terms of such a measure.
The president appeared to allude to his legal rationale during his Mar-a-Lago statement, saying: “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”
Legal precedent and many interpretations of the Constitution by federal courts all the way up to the Supreme Court have sided with previous presidents’ legal authority to launch strikes on their own when they deem it in the national security interests of the country. But whether such a justification will be enough to assuage lawmakers and avoid a new political fight is an open question 12 hours after the strikes.
“If the president intends to escalate the U.S. military’s involvement in Syria,” Pelosi said in a statement Thursday night, “he must to come to Congress for an authorization for use of military force which is tailored to meet the threat and prevent another open-ended war in the Middle East.”
While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked.
And GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who played golf recently with Trump to discuss how the two might find common ground on a health overhaul bill, immediately called for Trump to seek “congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution.”
“I call on him to come to Congress for a proper debate,” Paul said. “Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different.”