Trump's Move to Strike Assad Targets in Syria Draws Isolationist Rage, Establishment Raves

Anyone following the news of U.S. strikes on Twitter could easily notice that Trump's fiercest critics praised the move, while his staunchest defenders were outraged

Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, April 6, 2017.
JIM WATSON/AFP

WASHINGTON - Anyone who followed the news on the United States' strike against the Syrian air force on Thursday via Twitter could have easily noticed an unusual trend: some of U.S. President Donald Trump's strongest critics over the last few months were effusively praising his decision, while some of his most ardent supporters were hammering him hard and accusing him of starting World War III.

Trump ran in the 2016 U.S. election on an anti-interventionist platform, promising to stay out of unnecessary conflicts in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian civil war. He accused his rival Hillary Clinton of wanting to drag the U.S. into a nuclear war with Russia, making it clear time after time that he had no intention to go after the Assad regime in Syria and that the United States' only objective was to fight against ISIS. 

These positions brought Trump the strong support of isolationist Americans - mainly on the right but also in some parts of the left - while also creating anger and resentment towards him within the Republican foreign policy establishment, ranging from Senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham to former senior officials in the democracy-spreading, Russian-bashing Bush and Reagan administrations. 

But on Thursday night, the tables turned. McCain, who earlier this week called the Trump administration's proclamations that removing Assad was no longer a foreign policy objective "a disgraceful chapter in American history," was quick to issue a statement after the attack in support of the president. "Unlike the previous administration, President Trump confronted a pivotal moment in Syira and took action," he said. Graham, his partner in criticizing Trump's positions on Syria ever since the Republican primaries, co-signed the statement. 

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, another hawkish Republican who tried to used Trump's soft approach towards Assad in the Republican primaries against Trump, was just as supportive. "The president had the legal authority, the moral authority, and quite frankly the military strategy to be successful at it. It was the right decision that he made," Rubio said, adding that Trump's strike sends a strong message to Iran and North Korea.

Praise came also from the more security-oriented parts of the Democratic Party, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer - a blistering critic on Trump on any given day - calling the strike "the right thing to do," and asking the president to work with Congress on devising a larger Syria strategy. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida expressed a similar position. And in an interesting development that quickly became into a conspiracy theory on the dark corners of social media, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said just hours before the strike got under way, that she believes the United States should destroy Assad's airfields. 

Clinton's former head of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter, wrote that "Donald Trump has done the right thing on Syria. Finally! After years of useless handwringing in the face of hideous atrocities." 

At the same time that these responses were coming out, some of Trump's greatest supporters during his presidential run were expressing anger and disappointment. Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, one of the most extreme and controversial figures who got behind Trump going all the way back to the start of the Republican primaries, released a series of tweets accusing him of betraying his loyal base of supporters.

"I expected to spend this part of the Trump presidency tweeting that its' legal to deport anchor babies, not arguing against another Mid East war," she wrote. "Meddling in the Middle East has destroyed every president who has ever tried it," she added, right after tweeting that "media is THRILLED that Trump is destroying his presidency." These tweets were shared by thousands of people, as was one stating: "Trump campaigned on not getting involved in Mideast. Said it always helps our enemies and creates more refugees. Then he saw a picture on TV," referring to the images from the site of the chemical attack in Syria. 

Another prominent Trump supporter who seemed not very enthusiastic about the strike was TV host Laura Ingraham, who wrote to her 1.4 million followers: "Missiles flying. Rubio's happy. McCain ecstatic. Hillary's on board. A complete policy change in 48 hours." She also noted the high price of the Tomahawak missiles used for the strike.

In the Senate, the only Republican to come out against Trump was Rand Paul, the libertarian and isolationist Senator from Kentucky, who was one of Trump's first prominent supporters in Washington, but after the strike last night, accused the president. "While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked. The president needs Congressional authorization for military action as required by the Constitution. Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer and Syria will be no different." 

Right-wing isolationist writer and activist Justin Raimondo, who edits the website "anti-war.com" and who supported Trump during the election because he considered Hillary Clinton to be an interventionist hawk, was also highly critical of Trump on Thursday night. "Trump betrays Trumpism" was the headline of his first reaction article to the strike. "The biggest enemy of Trumpism," he wrote, "is Trump," adding that "Trump’s base opposes meddling in Syria to oust the Assad government. They can be mobilized to oppose this new madness – and there are millions of them. Trump has laid the basis for his own undoing." 

For a small group in Washington, however, Trump's strike against the Syrian air force came as somewhat of a personal victory: These are hawkish, interventionist Republicans who despite Trump's stated positions on Syria during the election and the primaries, expressed their support for him. One of those is Michael Doran, a former Bush administration national security official, who was very critical of the Obama administration's policy in Syria yet supported Trump even when the Republican nominee - and then president - seemed to be walking in Obama's footsteps on Syria.

After the strike on Thursday, Doran told Haaretz that "for four years, we've been hearing that Bashar al-Assad gave up all his poison gas, and that it was impossible for the United States to respond militarily while he murdered 500,000 of his own people. In the last 24 hours, we've seen definitively that both those statements are utterly false. Having demonstrated that, it is incumbent on President Trump to help erase the shame of America's complicity in the Syrian genocide and to demonstrate to the region that the United States is willing to compete with the Russian-Iranian alliance system even as it works to destroy ISIS."