President Donald Trump's April 7 airstrike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria was yet another surprising reversal from a man whose presidency has been increasingly defined by them. Not only did Trump oppose such attacks during President Obama's second term, but he also said very little of substance about Syria's civil war in the 2016 presidential campaign, emphasizing instead his desire to defeat ISIS. The jury is still out on the wisdom of the airstrike and the motives behind it, and it remains to be seen whether this act is a harbinger of a more comprehensive intervention.
In the absence of a coherent Syria strategy, Trump's about-face may be most notable for showing us a heretofore hidden, sentimental side of this president. For although he rationalized the airstrike as a defense of international law--the Bashar al-Assad regime used weapons banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention--he also cited the images of civilian casualties. "Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children," said Trump. "Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror."
Perhaps this was just cynical rhetoric, but what if he meant what he said? Giving him the benefit of the doubt presents us with a tough dilemma: Is this the same Donald J. Trump who sold himself to voters as a coldly unsentimental businessman, the man whom realists and libertarians alike applauded for promising a foreign policy shorn of emotion?
Given Trump's apparent indifference to international human rights and foreign aid, the notion that he will become a consistent champion of liberal ideals and international law is surely a longshot. But we should not be surprised if he peppers his foreign policy decisions with occasional acts of benevolence.
In fact, recent history suggests that a president's campaign claims and initial executive decisions are at best a partial guide to his future inclinations toward humanitarianism and interventionism. Those who purport to define the national interest narrowly are never entirely immune to emotional appeals and the pull of altruism, while those who portray themselves as Wilsonian liberal internationalists find that they cannot ignore the full weight of America's security obligations and parochial interests once they are in office.
Jimmy Carter's successful 1976 presidential campaign was galvanized to a significant degree by his embrace of human rights. In the wake of...