How fast things can change politically in three months. Donald Trump today doesn’t particularly resemble the man who won the election and was sworn in as president.
He’s already lost plenty of battles with the institutions and the deep American establishment. His first choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign and is under investigation, and his political consultant Steve Bannon was removed from the National Security Council.
The reins have been taken over by the “mature adults,” such as General H.R. McMaster, who has succeeded Flynn.
Besides the cosmetic changes, there’s also been a change in dogma. Former president Barack Obama suffered many attacks for backing down after establishing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.
Obama defended his stance in an interview where he explained that if he were to push for US engagement in Syria, he would have been boxed into a hopeless endeavor with no end.
Trump proclaimed that he would follow the same strategy of nonintervention in the Middle East. He marked this choice with the slogan “America first.”
This past Friday, however, Trump decided to change course. He himself gave the order to attack Syria. Foreign policy and defense professionals were thrilled, having wanted to see a strong message delivered to Damascus since the Obama era. Some of his fanatical supporters criticized him, saying he had sold out to the establishment. Cynical observers believe he followed the path of every president that found himself in a difficult position.
The attack on Syria, however, delivered one more message, with relation to Moscow. Trump and those around him had for several months found themselves targeted because of their relations with Russia. The pressure now is great for him to show that he doesn’t have a special relationship with Russia, nor any kind of dependence on President Vladimir Putin. By attacking Syria, he’s come into hard confrontation with Moscow.
Perhaps that was the ultimate objective. Now it remains to be seen whether he will stop there or if the United States will become involved in an operation to overthrow the Assad regime. His predecessor knew the difficulties of such an operation and believed it would trap him in a deadlock like that which resulted from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and whose reverberations are still being felt today. It also remains to be seen whether the Russian leader will remove his gloves and escalate his rhetoric against the US.
What is certain, however, is that Trump will discover the true limits of American power. Reality, after all, has changed him a lot. One Trump won the election, another Trump governs today.