Stranger Things Have Happened
by Joe Renouard, Ph.D.
President Donald Trump’s airstrike against the Shayrat airbase in Syria was yet another surprising reversal from a man whose presidency has been increasingly defined by them. 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.
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 the Vietnam War, Watergate, and revelations about CIA misdeeds, Carter hoped that a robust human rights policy would restore America’s reputation as the world’s foremost champion of liberal democracy. As he explained after his election, “I felt like it was time for our country to hold a beacon light of something pure and decent and right and proper that would rally our citizens to a cause.”
He went on to implement the most far-reaching human rights measures ever adopted by a president. But by his final year in office, his priorities had changed dramatically. Facing a hostage crisis in Iran, a revolution in Nicaragua, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Carter’s human rights goals took a backseat to his re-embrace of a traditional “containment” policy against Moscow.
Ronald Reagan picked up where Carter left off. He came to office intent on challenging the Soviet Union and rekindling relations with “friendly,” anticommunist governments across a broad swath of the globe. For the early Reagan administration, international human rights violations were a marginal concern at best—little more than anti-Soviet fodder to be used in the service of the administration’s other interests, or otherwise ignored entirely.
Yet one of the most striking political stories of the era was Reagan’s transformation from a dogmatic hardliner to a more open-minded executive after his first few years in office. From 1984 onward, his administration pursued democracy promotion and human rights policies in several countries, and they even proved willing to criticize longstanding American allies. Human rights matters also became an integral subject of Reagan’s summits with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan’s turnabout had its limits—most notably in his Central America policy, which required acrobatic leaps of obfuscation to justify U.S. support to the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras. But it is hard to deny that, on a whole, he appreciably altered his approach to world affairs in his second term.
Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, was a cautious pragmatist and a staunch defender of international stability. Even his boldest decisions reflected his steadfast desire for order, e.g., his creation of an international coalition to eject Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait. Yet Bush also had a sentimental side. Late in 1992, he was so moved by television scenes of the civil war in Somalia that he took control of the fledgling U.N. mission there and sent 25,000 U.S. troops to help secure entry points and distribute relief aid. The operation’s catastrophic final act in the October 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (the infamous “Black Hawk down” incident) clearly demonstrated the potential pitfalls of “mission creep.”
Similar lessons would also haunt the presidency of Bush’s son. George W. Bush campaigned as a realist in 2000, once even asserting that the use of military force “needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious.” It is a singular irony, then, that Bush’s post-9/11 volte face included not only military missions without obvious exit strategies, but also such controversial tactics as waterboarding, extraordinary rendition of prisoners, and extrajudicial internment of suspected enemy combatants at Guantánamo Bay.
With Iraq spiraling into sectarian chaos, Bush changed course once again and took up the cause of democracy promotion and human rights, declaring in his second inaugural address his administration’s desire “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” This “freedom agenda” was overshadowed by the dreadful human toll of the Iraq War, but even Bush’s toughest critics applauded his work on behalf of humanitarian causes. Among his most notable and lasting efforts was the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), through which the U.S. now provides antiretroviral treatment to more than eleven million people. PEPFAR has been the source of some controversy, but it has also saved thousands of lives.
When Barack Obama appeared on the scene, many activists backed him in the hope that he would strengthen the U.S. government’s commitment to international human rights. Sensing that the public had soured on the War on Terror, candidate Obama promised to prohibit detainee abuse, close Guantánamo, and pare down America’s obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the long run, he was more willing than his predecessor to engage with multilateral organizations, and he became a stalwart advocate for LGBT rights.
But Obama proved to be a much more cautious advocate than many activists had hoped. While his foreign policy defied neat categorization, he was clearly not a serial interventionist or a consistently vocal champion of humanitarian efforts. Paul R. Pillar concluded that Obama was a realist; Roger Cohen called him “a realist and an internationalist, in that order;” Josef Joffe dubbed him “an isolationist with drones and special operations forces;” and Stephen M. Walt countered that Obama never fully embraced a realist worldview.
There is evidence for each of these positions. Obama actually increased the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by nearly 60,000 soldiers before steadily reducing troop numbers in his second term. He was unable to close Guantánamo and unwilling to enforce his “red line” threat in Syria. He ordered more than 500 drone strikes in multiple countries, many of which killed civilians. And when he reluctantly supported a 2011 operation in Libya aimed at protecting civilians in Benghazi, the U.S. then secretly provided weapons to the Libyan rebels who ultimately ousted and killed Muammar Gaddafi. Although the U.S. and its partners may have saved civilian lives in Libya, unfortunately they were unable to build a stable peace.
President Trump may yet prove to be as hard-nosed a realist as he claimed to be during the presidential campaign. It is too early to tell, and consistency is hardly his strong suit. But then, a consistent foreign policy has eluded leaders who were far more steadfast, and far more experienced, than Donald J. Trump.
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
Dr. Joe Renouard specializes in American diplomacy, American history, human rights and humanitarianism, and transatlantic relations. His most recent book is Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse (Penn Press, 2016). He has also contributed essays to The Los Angeles Times, The National Interest, American Diplomacy, The Diplomat, The Journal of American Culture, HNN, The Cicero Foundation, The Prague Post, Education about Asia, and several edited collections. At present, he is developing a book manuscript on the international genocide treaty.
In addition to Dr. Renouard’s position in Nanjing, he holds an associate professorship at The Citadel. He has lived and worked in the Czech Republic and Spain, and he has taught at Emory University, Oxford College, Virginia Tech, and Kennesaw State University. In recent years, he has received fellowships and research grants from Princeton University, the American Philosophical Society, the George C. Marshall Foundation, and the Huntington Library.